Alexandra Oliver’s deeply conventional poems in Let the Empire Down report on social arrangements: family, home, neighbourhoods, work, and fitting (comfortably or otherwise) into those environments. The mode is formal, and subjects, for the most part, mundane—reading to schoolchildren, having a manicure, taking a bus or train, receiving medical test results – except for the ten poems of the book’s closing sequence, “Movies,” which recount and reframe a handful of movies by Fellini and others.
In their observations of women in particular social environments, the poems share some ground with early work of PK Page, and Oliver’s sure hand with formal elements places her work alongside contemporaries like Marilyn Hacker.
Musicality of language offers much of the poems’ surface interest, while patterns of repetition and variation structure Oliver’s syntax and stanzas. Metre and rhyme dominate in tightly wrought lines; sounds repeat and collide among the crisp nouns and just-right verbs of Oliver’s conversational, British Isles-inflected diction (a diction which at times leaps around more than one register, creating a slightly odd, jarring effect).
In the elegy “How Beautiful Is Night,” a vinyl LP occasions tender reminiscence of a relationship whose complications are deftly alluded to: “that night you told me I shouldn’t leave / and I’d be better off with you instead,” and left to smoulder in casual remarks about the musician’s “right to choose / the models on the front of his LPs / though he was blind.” The piano music that had cut through the “smugness of a twentysomething mind” stirs the same feeling “[s]eventeen years on.” The image on the record sleeve, though, is not a “lounging, sloe-eyed femme fatale / in satin,” that cliché of a certain era in music production, but “a London bridge in winter. / You’ve crossed I hear. How beautiful. That’s all.”
Oliver’s prosodic skill lends gravitas to her subjects, notably in the poems “Margaret Rose,” a look at the families and legacies from which the book derives its title; “Grocery Skipping Song,” which tracks a disturbing scene that could be from film noir; “Plans,” another look back in time; and the closing poem (a little masterwork) “Suspiria.” No less rigorously crafted are poems that remain mostly surface. In “Job Proposal for Gavra, Aged Seven, Who Has Been Given A 452-Page Science Almanac,” parents of a precocious child share a smug private joke about turning their child loose among roomfuls of “lurching bores” in order to free them of the tedious task of having to be sociable. It’s cute, and apparently meant to be light despite its formal weight. Some readers may find this gap gives the poem ironic substance. “Entertaining the Locals” presents a more deeply entrenched version of social positioning without obvious nuances of irony or self-reflection. Beauty, especially its change and loss, is another subject Oliver touches on in poems whose formality might be stopping down more thoughtful exploration.
Most of the poems repay close reading with pleasures: a precise observation, an enduring question, an emotional connection. If you’re after passionate fireworks, this book will not likely be your first choice, but for sureness, clarity and precision like cut crystal, you’d do well to look here.
Susan Gillis is a Montreal poet and member of the collaborative poetry group Yoko’s Dogs. Her most recent book is The Rapids (Brick 2012). The chapbook Obelisk is forthcoming from Gaspereau Press and her new full-length collection will be published by Brick Books in 2018.
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