Susan Telfer begins her second book of poetry, Ghost Town, with a section that includes an inspired suite of poems. With writing that slips in and out of the mythical and the surreal, we quickly learn that the narrator isn’t really writing about the ghost towns that dot the back roads of British Columbia, but instead “your family,” with its “boarded up false fronts at the back of memory.”
The narrator wants to bury her “unpredictable father” in his “red-faced drunkenness” and the trail of dysfunction that he leaves behind. In “Walking in the Snow” she writes: “In this poem my father is not drunk. / He does not phone me this December night / and beg me to invite him for Christmas.” In this wishful rewriting of the past, he does not pass “out on my couch before dinner / in front of my young children, scaring them.”
In more surrealistic moments Telfer takes us into a mine that tunnels under a theatre’s orchestra pit, on a whale-ride in the ocean, and through nameless ghost towns where buildings or trains or people appear mysteriously. It’s here that Telfer’s poems hit the reader hardest in the gut with the full punch of her subject matter, and where her simple, lyrical lines serve her poems best. With very little “torque,” or ramped up language, the narrator brings home the terror of alcoholism and its ripple effect on her family and marriage.
There are poetic gems scattered throughout Ghost Town: “fruit trees pom-pomming the hillsides,” a bride’s veil described as a “gauze malaria tent,” and garter snakes are “set free, rivered / through the hedge at the side of the yard.” However, following the first section, Telfer tends to write more formalistic poems, including sestinas, villanelles, and poems heavy with end rhyme or near-rhyme. Often she is able to craft the poem well enough that it wasn’t obvious until the end, but at times the poem’s form seems to force her diction and take the reader out of the poem. For example, in “1988,” the line “I wonder about the fire of what’s unsaid” is part of an end-rhyme scheme (wed/unsaid/wingspread) and is repeated in various re-workings to produce a metaphor that feels awkward and somewhat forced.
And in several poems the last two lines rhyme, landing the poem a bit too solidly and completely for my satisfaction. In “The Swimmer,” a girl is practicing for a long-distance swim, and the poem ends: “she’s propelled by Marilyn Bell lore, / so she perfects her self-imposed chore.”
I wish Telfer had stuck with surrealist elements throughout the book, but by the end the metaphor of the ghost town peters out, along with the narrator’s gut-tightening disclosure of her family skeletons. We want to hold our breath with her and let it go when she does. We want to gasp at the poems, or at the truths contained within. As she writes in “Helicopter,” with the scene of the dying father lifting off in an air ambulance:
he took wing with the dusk, leaving me
as quickly as a diver lifts off
a springboard. And I could breathe again,
as though I had been holding my breath.
Al Rempel’s books of poetry are This Isn’t the Apocalypse We Hoped For and Understories. His poems have been published in a variety of journals and he has a recent chapbook called Four Neat Holes (Leaf Press, 2016). He can be found at http://alrempel.com
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.