Given the immensity of Canada’s geography and the breadth of its poetic styles, it’s surprising that poetic correspondences, such as the one between Allan Cooper and Harry Thurston, don’t occur more frequently. The Deer Yard is a verse exchange that invokes the Wang River Sequence between 8th c. Chinese poets Wang Wei and his friend P’ei Ti. In each of the 20 poems, one poet provides the opening quatrain, while the other responds to an image or idea from the first verse. Their combined voices creates a third poem.
Written while Thurston spent a winter residency in Campbell River, British Columbia, and while Cooper waited for spring in his home in Alba, New Brunswick, this poetic exchange is a call-and-response, a trail through silence. Haiku-like in their brevity and in their treatment of the natural world, these poems chronicle the passing of a season. In the book’s title poem, “The Deer Yard (after Wang Wei),” Thurston observes, “Not a soul to be seen, but listen– / voices echo over the mountain,” and, in his answer, Cooper strains to hear “Your voice, clear and sure, / carries across the miles between us.” These spare poems evoke each poet’s striving to observe the non-human world in deferential ways. The book plots the passing of time, from the first snow towards the eventual spring and homecoming. While trails, groves, and rivers are the overt subjects of their attention, reflections on absence and aging slip into Cooper and Thurston’s exchange. Both are aware of “the weight of the years, their weathers” and the “old body” of the earth. “Forty years ago, when I first came this way / to the long beach of driftwood, I was a young man full of ideals,” writes Thurston. “I too am growing old, lazy as the driftwood / in the morning light. Yet part of me remains young,” responds Cooper. Their allusions to the passing years add a sense of gravity and immensity to their observations on nature’s lifecycles.
What’s missing from these poems is a sense of what’s at stake. Neither the use of language nor the treatment of the themes contain enough risks or surprises. In his introduction, Thurston writes that these poems are a “figurative ‘yarding up’ against the isolation, or cabin fever, of the winter season and the silences of great distances.” However, the perils of meditation, the loss of faith, the doubts that companionship will be found again, could have been conveyed more fully and strikingly. While nature contains many beauties, it’s also a place of savagery and starvation, and this face of nature is merely a shadow in these poems. It’s not more drama that’s needed, but a deeper contrast so that the quiet tones can echo after its crescendos.
I have seen evidence of both poets’ capacity for bolder, bleaker visions in their other work. Perhaps the muted tones of The Deer Yard result from the authors’ attempts to mimic the contemplative mode of the “Mountains and Streams,” or Shanshui, school of poetry. Yet Wang Wei, who expressed a desire to withdraw from public life, was also an aristocrat and prominent government official. His poems may not be stridently radical or apolitical, but they contain tensions that are absent in Thurston’s and Cooper’s poems. Their approach to translation isn’t clear, as they neither fully commit to diverging from the original nor to capturing the subtle strains of its dissent.
Both poets are too apt to tack on an uplifting conclusion, or to fall into predictable phrases and descriptions: “Winter jasmine climbed the trellis / outside my study like tendrils of sunshine, / brightening my darkest days,” or “When spring comes the trout will rise / to the first mayflies dancing above the brook.” The most striking moments come when the poets make demands and feel “dark lures” of bewilderment or grief inside them. Glad as I am that their temporary separation and long winter comes to an end, as a reader I don’t always wish to be sure they’ll reach a safe harbour.
Phoebe Wang is a graduate of University of Toronto’s MA in Creative Writing program, and her chapbook, Occasional Emergencies, appeared this fall with Odourless Press. More of her work can be found at www.alittleprint.com.
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