The title could not be more appropriate. In this, Jan Conn’s eighth book of poetry, the poems set me on edge, with characters and imagined worlds at the brink. Tension arises from surprising and often unsettling juxtapositions of image, diction, or tone: for instance, lines that may be unrelated by obvious narrative or logical thread yet make me want to stretch my mind to connect them, or various visions of threat, uprootings, catastrophes, social, and personal collapse. Many of the poems have been inspired by other creative works, notably from the world of visual arts. All are drenched in image, sound and scent, leavened by moments of humour.
Several poems in the opening section depict the road to apocalypse. With imagery of deserts, cracked earth, and displacement, they point to what the poet identifies as some basic truths: “in the desert, one kills for water” (“Turbulent Primitive”); or “The permanent is leaving town” and “Today I am without provenance, and the rain is on loan” (“The Tail of Ted Hughes’ Fox”). “Space is a Temporal Construct,” the book’s first poem and one of three set in Mexico, combines images of snails, time, crumbling temples, the goddess Diana, a crowned pastry chef, and hydroponic tomatoes to create a vivid metaphorical picture of the chaotic march of life. The poem ends with an image of civilization climbing toward a vision of delights, including “fountains of clean, aerated H2O.”: Along the route, “all the emotional debris of a lifetime hovers overhead / flashing and rotating in a vast vertical column / as eager to befriend us as a lost puppy.”
Later poems in the collection look at lone women at a turning point, issues of self and family, the challenges of old age and declining powers, and the poet’s vulnerability in the mysterious world of the poem. All are vivid and compelling.
Conn’s mastery of line and stanza breaks shows in “Reality Beside Itself”: “Here in the east, larkspurs stir and this lost traveller / finds her way through a hailstorm, having left windows open // in every previous town.” In the first two lines, the word “lost” evokes risk, while “hailstorm” and the unclosed windows suggest vulnerability. But the final line, by pulling back to show a long history, kicks the emotional impact to another level, suggesting a lifetime trail of error and unfinished business.
Conn’s combination of criticism and hope keeps this collection from being weighed down with gloom. The opening stanza of “Teatro Amazonas” embodies this balance: “The rusted skyline of the port city wavers. In contrast / the great southern river emanates a turquoise / radiant and somnambulant, / and the deep moan of a foghorn from another world is / drowned, fragmentary.” In the final poem, “Yellow Moon: Flip Side, or Cherry Ice Cream, February, Saskatchewan,” images from the first poem recur – time, pure water (frozen), ice cream—in a setting of innocence and hope.
This is a book to read, re-read and keep.
Jean Van Loon’s short fiction has appeared in a number of Canadian literary magazines. She has come late to poetry, but is no less grateful for it.