What a breath of fresh air to find wit and joy working as wholehearted partners when they are too often posed as adversaries in our day-to-day culture. Instead, here, language is rigorously (and almost completely) cleared of pretense: spoken plainly, but sort of in the way that moonlight is sunlight: of course it actually is, and of course it actually isn’t. For instance, “In the Kitchen:”
red tulips in the vase
execute a slow
but then, in “The Seine and Its Bridges,” a full-scale cultural panorama opens up in one line:
The blood of Homer’s Trojans, bridges as chapter headings
We get a sense of language, in consonants, as something that can clog the throat, but then gives way, via its vowels, to the necessary lubrication. Frutkin manages to consider the two-sided coins of language (oral-written, captured-elusive) while preserving a straightforward unity. So in the ode to (attempted) silence, “Cathedral of Chartres,”
masons tock granite, carts clatter,
men grunt under loaded hods
we can enjoy the play of assonance, but moreso the poetry that consists simply of language doing a job with precision.
Hermit Thrush is Mark Frutkin’s 2016 Ottawa Book Award finalist. While it isn’t grounded in narrative, it cycles through five sections like a lovely day: from a sort of domestic morning into a cerebral twilight, with a few stops to gather haiku along the roadside. It offers as a lesson in how to address satori without signalling that one takes oneself overly seriously.
In section 1, everything in the domestic sphere is as great and as granular as the poet’s mind, always owning up to the figurative/cultural sphere. Frutkin invokes world literary heritage as a secular-sacred thing, a force of healing and companionship.
Two list poems on liberation in the first and then the fourth sections delineate the core of the book. These and other list poems comprise collected and polished fragments and phrases, like small piles of rubble, or maybe salvage, while other pieces are more wrought as a whole. Once I noticed this, I slowly picked out other pairs of bookends, open-ended but a framework nonetheless. I think in the overall use of this range, he’s found a lovely way of allowing the metaphysical in without landing on heavy-handed transcendental tropes.
The twilight mentioned above is “Lines Written in Pencil,” both the book’s denouement and maybe also the bare brick of its process. Not to call the process transparent—we bring to our reading the knowledge that something so light, with so few seams showing, can’t have been other than ponderous and exacting to execute, like the Michelangelo sculpture he writes of in “Statue of Snow.” Frutkin hints at this with a Michelangelo quote: “to expend heavy effort and nevertheless create something weightless” – a phrase that comes near to how many would describe a poet’s task.
In the last section, various passages recalled to me just how many images of flux occur during the earlier parts. Time, and water too, are placidly running through the book – under Monet’s Japanese bridge, through the Seine, in the moon’s cycle, in acts of writing and reading. The only borders of the world in the book are these streams, never allowing our binary distinctions, like sacred/profane, to disrupt the tidy chaos of the world Frutkin contemplates.
Kevin Matthews has performed his work for more than ten years throughout Canada, including representing Ottawa and his hometown of Winnipeg on slam teams. Kevin lives in Ottawa and serves on Arc’s board.
LANGUAGE LIKE AN ARC OF MOONLIGHT!