I am fond of the idiosyncratic voicing, traceries of atypical allusions, of the hewn but rendered-new form and the demotic stance translated through strange dreamings. I don’t want to sense grad-school-shaped elisions and trickeries, sleek surfaces buffed to a meaningless shine, little titters of anecdotal lyrics. Nothing sticks and settles in the mind-blood there. And even when the whole collections don’t strike me, there is something in me that utterly forgives (if I can assume that god-posture for a moment) if I hear a reconfigured tune, even faintly and erratically. And I do hear this song in both these collections, however variantly composed.
#1 – As If a Raven – Yvonne Blomer (Palimpsest Press, 2014)
What Shines: The risk of it. Writing birds as if they are being named for the first time within Genesis, making the Biblical so overt in this time of poetically-secular resistance (and I too shrink from it, even as it is partial foundation for my own literary, at least, rhythms & references). The extension of this preoccupation throughout an entire book. Which makes it difficult to call forth segments of it to exclaim upon, though Pigeons (“O, small coo calling”),the aural texture of Jacob’s Ladder (“Double-crested, strange-billed, floppy-footed: oaud oaud it alleged, beak on the bearing of hills, of still water”), Audubon: Still Life, a short palindrome (“What was nest has been skimmed”) and the Yeatsian Raven’s Skein which brings potency back to this lyrically-weary bird in the first two brief phrases: “All night stars. Tenebrous, the switch forgotten.” Lots of leaps into Keats’ “sparrow pecking” here (“if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel” [July 1817 letter]) as Blomer’s ear begs us to listen to the litany of cries, their “humthrob” and “krok kroa kark“. I haven’t had the chance to hear her read many of these poems aloud (“Have you been hunting?” with its haunting repetitions was one) but this is where their power must swell most effectively. I love the open-beaked raven cover too, despite it not being in matte. And the paper.
What Stumbles: It’s hard to write about birds (and particularly crows/ravens) with a freshness of perception in Canadian poetry, especially after such inundations of them from Tim Lilburn, Robert Bringhurst and especially, Don McKay. Then there’s Ted Hughes’ Crow. And so one has to work harder as a writer and reader to flit over such mountains. At times, the Biblical resonances overpower, for instance in the corona “The Turtle Dove” which does Song of Songs to excess with hard-to-swallow rhyming end couplets such as: “oh turtle dove, oh brooding, oh nesting/in this, my heart, the beat of all is cresting.” And sometimes the endings just clump down: “dig feet, their beaks in, and feed”, a skimpy deliverance after the promising crash of the opening: “After death all that is/is absent.” But there is a ringing consistency throughout the collection that makes these moments only minor slippages in the transcendent aviary.
What it Echoes (apart from the above listed): George Herbert, Margaret Avison, Carl D’Silva (ornithologist artist from Goa) & Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61, an orchestral composition written by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara in 1972.
#2 – All the Daylight Hours – Amanda Jernigan (Cormorant Books, 2013)
What Shines: Again, the idioms, rhythms, allusions Jernigan interweaves are not those of the clone poems MFA departments often spew out, but gleamings of long scholarship, quiet intellect and the pursuit of uncommon musics, many of them born too of meditations on the included woodcuts by her husband, artist John Haney. I was initially struck by the sonnet “Lullaby” with its lovely alliterative opening: “My little lack-of-light” that flows into “solstice fish” and “solstitial kingdom” and the closing pronouncement, “You shall make your consolation all your life.” The first half of the book is particularly lush with sources from Orpheus to Lear and Prospero to Yeats, the references never just sitting on the surface of the poems but organically emerging from them through aural echoes. I adored Reflection (“The swan slipped under the bridge – a palmed card…a surreptitious movement/but scandalously bright”), the sequence for St. John’s, NFLD called When the Weather Comes and especially i.Arrival (“We arrive abruptly. The highway coughs us up/in bog, among the flat black pools that brood in peat” – yes! what an ear!!!), Desire Lines or Poems for Terra Nova National Park, the exquisite end rhymes and sly humour of Routine (“On Friday nights you swept the shopfloor clean/Against the wrack of publishing, the sanity of routine”), Love Letter with its deep consciousness of craft, affection rendered more powerfully through attention to prosody (“you’ll notice how the daylight pools/in the formal hollows of those o’s”) and the anthologized extended sonnet Encounter with the reversal of mother and fetus, the former “adrift in space” like Leonov and the latter able to “pull” her in. Sonorous, moving, significant.
The further into the collection I read the slighter some of the pieces seemed such as Poem with the Gift of a Timepiece, Grandfather Clock, Nursery Rhyme and Rings. Mostly I think because they are occasional poems and somehow did not successfully translate their context. Another like Love Poem felt like a sketch towards a deeper entry and I wished it had not been content to reside in the sentimentality of “our son…reaching out for “Mum” and “Dad”. But there are so many gifts here, even the cover with its colourful slashes by Pierre Coupey, that I am not inclined to gouge too readily.
What it Echoes: “New Formalists” like Anita Lahey & Richard Greene, Ralph Gustafson, a Chateaux Margaux Bordeaux wine paired with an endive salad, a still of Martha Graham dancing, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).