“I didn’t know which I’d find— / the father watching at the window / or the one in hiding / behind the mountain” writes Pamela Porter in “The River Asked Me”, an early poem in this unusually lengthy book (121 pages). The collection spins around an unknown but richly imagined birth father, with the occasional appearance of a protective “adoptive father.” With no proof of who her biological father was, Porter focuses the richly imagined scenes and re-creations that make up this book on a local minister who died shortly before her mother. While Porter exploits this coincidence to imagine a birth father for herself, she stipulates that the poems “remain poems, first and last,” not proof of paternity.
Here is opportunity for an innovative poet to invent and re-invent the way things might have transpired, how they might have felt, and how they might be described. In “Baptism,” she imagines her infant self placing “my ear to your heart and listen / for anything I could call love,” while the poem “To Speak of Him” offers a lexicon for missing-in-action: absence, echo, silence, deserted. “When You Let Me Go” describes a Moses-child whose “basket nudged downstream // your footfalls on the hard shore leaving.”
Porter is the author of six volumes of poetry and four books for children and young adults, one of which, The Crazy Man, won the Governor General’s award for children’s fiction, among other prizes. Among her accolades for poetry was the 2012 Malahat Review University of Victoria 50th anniversary prize for “Photograph: Svetlana Stalin and her Father” about which judge Patricia Young commented, “This is a very fine poem that asks the complex question: what does it mean to love a god-like father who turns out to be a monster?” Fathers were on Porter’s mind that year.
Arranged in seven sections, there is no clear narrative arc to the poems, rather they hit the same ground again and again from different angles, circling the way thoughts go round and round a subject that absorbs and obsesses. Never to know for sure who your father is, to imagine how it could have been, what he might have felt, and to ruminate on the question of a mother who kept the secret her whole life long—rich prompts for the poet. The past holds many secrets for us all, so in that sense the mystery and longing in these poems are also part of every reader’s experience.
Even in narrative, Porter has a lyric hand. With its roots in musical expression like singing, chanting, and recitation, the lyric is “not mere emotion, but the imaginative prehension of emotional states” (Herbert Read). Our sensibilities in the 21st century, however, are quick to sniff out any excess, and although keenly felt and expressed emotion is one of Porter’s strengths, I liked best the poems that combined rich imagery with restraint. The speaker’s longing emerges sharply, for example, in the line “Let me be the dust in his hair” (“In One Country”), and in the delicacy of the poem “Winter,” with its three stark sections, “The poem: Sparrows lining the sky. // Loneliness: Coyote’s eyes on an empty road. // Your death: a gate rusted from rain.” Prompted not only by longing but also by a redemptive grace that accepts and forgives, these poems tumble out heartfelt and move the reader with their urgency.
Barbara Myers is an Ottawa writer.
CANADA’S ARCHETYPAL POETRY JOURNAL