In “There is a Good Wind,” one of the first poems in Katherine Bitney’s fourth collection of poems, Firewalk, Bitney writes, “When you sleep in wind you are between two worlds.” The most satisfying poems in this collection are those that situate the reader in that wind between worlds in the company of the speaker. They offer the surprise of insight—we learn exactly what must be gambled in order to live a fuller life. “The Sun at Midwinter” is a good example:
You were there. I saw you. Notwithstanding the clouds. Fog. I saw you through the
circle of stones,
the lintels clear and square against the earth. Somehow,
we unbound them, laid them in a line. Made sentences of them,
let the story ramble on. We unbind it still
and that was the risk, always.
I like the power of the short, declarative statements that start the poem off; the subsequent disconnection of the fragments that follow; the concrete, precise description of the stones and their location relative to the earth; and then how Bitney, using the same declarative syntax, launches into the metaphor that brings the poem back to an emotional truth about chance and time passing and love—without ever once using any of those words.
As powerful as I find “The Sun at Midwinter,” however, its syntactical pattern is frequent enough to sometimes feel like a crutch—declarative statements leading neatly to a summing-up metaphor (e.g. “November,” “Living on Tiptoe,” “August Evening,” and “Yggdrasil: The World Tree,” among others). This repetition of pace and rhythm could indicate that there’s something at stake in these poems that Bitney hasn’t wholly worked out. I found myself wondering what poem might have resulted from the exercise of using that rhythm and pattern until the impulse to repeat had culminated in something new entirely.
The collection could also have been made tighter by omitting poems that hold one or two tantalizing lines or images but that don’t always rise consistently to those best lines. For example, “Coming to Solstice” begins with this stout and intriguing declaration: “This is the sun that belongs to the stag in winter.” What follows—“Pale lemon / light reaches out its arms of promise. What is true. The ache of your memories and mine”—seems to hang on the strength of surprise in the initial phrase, but remains flat in a two-dimensional space of mind that Bitney is elsewhere able to render complex and multi-dimensional. When I compare that kind of poem with the ecstatic “More,” a prose poem whose form seems to allow Bitney the scope and freedom to riff at the intersection of natural, spiritual, and archetypal worlds to the full extent of her gift, it leaves me hungry—not surprisingly—for more.
Ann Scowcroft’s The Truth of Houses was the recipient of the 2011 Concordia First Book Prize. Home base is rural Quebec.