The philosophical, spiritually-tinged female voice in Canadian poetry, apart from a few exceptions such as Jan Zwicky or Margaret Avison, has been mostly marginalized. There is a general resistance to the didactic pronouncement, to the abstract pondering, to the nostalgic word “soul,” to the realm of love addressed beyond the physical. Yet these two poets persist in their visions regardless. As Bowering states in her book trailer, while specifics can be important, she is more interested in the “feeling [that] has been conveyed” because it transports the experience of art and enables the connection with the listener. Tucker, in her quiet reflectivity, also quests for that mood of musing and its beauties.
#1: Soul Mouth (Exile Editions, 2014)
What Shines: Bowering has written solidly, for decades now, in a range of genres, always returning to poetry. Soul Mouth is a series of lyric poems about the stories we tell of ourselves and others from the surreal freshness of early childhood on. She inhabits the detached sensory impressions of newness vividly: the bees in their glass honeycomb from “Museum,” the “water green eyelids” of “Crow,” the “tendrils of ferny feeling” that adolescence brings when “a boy would push his tongue inside my mouth/and bring me close to wisdom and to death.” I love her horse pieces for PK Page, her unabashed ability to pronounce our “souls” and the deeply resonant lines in “Satin Flower” that perfectly encapsulate post-mourning: “Now that grief no longer/climbs the night stairs,/I can say that the heart/goes on its distant loping anyway.” The third section “The Storytellers on their Carpets” departs from the personal tangibles of earlier poems to powerfully engage with such figures of myth as Ariadne and Midas: “what a pity you did not write a poem instead. /Everyone knows a poem has no intrinsic worth.” This impossible reduction is positive and implies the river of making can continue on its course, singingly.
What Stumbles: I like the haunting swash on the cover but not really the font, outside or in, nor that after so many books, Bowering still seems to be required to ask for a trio of blurbs on the back, a practice that should be reserved for the apprentice poet, or at least not for one publishing over twenty years! When one reads too many of these pieces in a row, the relentlessness of the “I” chimes a little too loudly, perhaps just reminding the reader that contemplative poems need reading in a contemplative fashion. On occasion, the diction gets lax as with the word “find” in the lines: “ask that the birds find something to eat/ask that the young find each other.” The incantatory, anaphoric repetition of “ask” is sufficient without “find” repeated, not to mention a surplus of “that.” And while Bowering describes the frequent use of end rhyme in the first two sections as hearkening back to youth’s nursery rhymes, sometimes it works as in “when I wore my hair like a pall/and didn’t know how lovely I was at all,” and others are less effective like “put your tongue out to the rain/and claim.”
What it Echoes: Alex Colville paintings, Italo Calvino, Plato’s Symposium, William Stafford, blue-eyed Soul music, pastries with dark raisins embedded in them.
#2: Bonsai Love (Harbour Publishing, 2014)
What Shines: Tucker also writes in several genres, publishing infrequently, but with an unwavering lexicon of belief in the numinous world. Like Susan McCaslin or Avison, again, Tucker is unafeard of the word “God” or “heart” and more importantly, the spiritual perspective she has drawn from years of witness and practice. Thus, the loves of which she writes are not only temporal, and certainly not relegated to the modern. These carefully pruned, both archaic and ritualistic “trees” are songs of praise and hope, laced with Neruda and Jung, Osoyoos Lake and jazz. They are not “about” a particular person per se but relate instead to the gigantic adventure of adoration within a questioning mind and a yearning body. The most potent pieces are the ones that inhabit a strong form: her three ghazals, the gloss on Robert Bly’s lines: “The light opens my hands; I have no claim on you,” the taut erotics of “Fruition” which closes “We want ripe fruit in the full shade/We want tanned limbs and colour and sugar and wine,” and equally “Eating the Fruit” with its “perfection of emptiness.” I also loved “Osoyoos Lake,” “Reading” and “The Jazz Path.” And O! “Congress of green eons” !
What Stumbles: I still haven’t decided if I like the cover: a ceramic Andenne Bisque girl beneath a glass dome with tiny trees, or not. Visually it appeals but it seems to diminish the poems within to suffocated fripperies trapped in a hermetically-sealed globe. Of course there are poems in this book that fall into that little trap, using similar words over and over, such as “stone/breath/water/light/silence” without producing much of a resonant effect. Many of the pieces float in a necessary insufficiency though some drift off into cliches like the close of “I know what I know” in which words are envisaged laxly as “stairs/as swords to cut the city free/as wings.” And “Scab Picker” veers into the icky pointless for me, the speaker tearing off the wound’s “Tupperware-tight seal.” Poems need often to be re-read to allow them to seep in at depth but this, in our age of flit, is not a negative. Yeah, ok, I like the cover.
What it Echoes: Denise Levertov, Song of Songs, Cezanne’s Apples, Shawna Lemay’s essays, Bessie Smith, ice cream that melts & freezes endlessly.