The archaeological excavation of a 2000-year-old woman (possibly a storyteller or shaman) in Siberia named Ledi, and an urgent excavation of the death of a former lover by suicide, are the focus of this fascinating and enigmatic book.
I love the way this collection begins with an untitled evocation foregrounding the five sections, charting the ebb and flow of blue dawn light, felt as water, filling the narrator’s body, “I am clear in this tidal light.” But then, the next (and final) stanza is wonderfully ambiguous, beginning with “And then it goes, leaving ligaments and thews strewn/ like dried grasses.“ We sense how transient this clarity may be, physically and emotionally. We can guess that the narrator is simultaneously inhabiting the body of Ledi and her own. Throughout the five sections of this book (I. Wrenched from the cold earth; II. Integument; III. Inventory; IV. Ghost: V. Blue across this land that looks like sea), Trainor uses spare lyrics and the format of a notebook or diary as she skilfully interweaves the dead, burial and excavation details, contrasting environments of the Siberian steppes and Vancouver, and the narrator’s life before, during and after her former lover’s suicide.
Imagine being buried, as was Ledi, in “birch skin and larch,” trees sacred to Siberian peoples, and “clasped in silk and fur”—such a sensuous thought! The initial poem in section I, “3 May” vividly recreates the landscape surrounding the burial cairn: “The steppe is said to / have a glacial memory. Her grave was a lens of ice focusing dark / shadows.” Later, there is a marvellous single line stanza: “The body emerged from the ice like a temple rubbing.” It’s spring as the archaeologists work, with flowers and mosquito clouds, but then the “stench of rotting horsemeat” adds an unexpectedly visceral note. These descriptions spark curiosity about Ledi’s life, and preparation for her life after death—rituals so important to her community that horses were buried with her.
As the narrator researches details of Ledi’s unearthing at the University of British Columbia library in Vancouver, it is spring, and Trainor entwines into the Ledi narrative her and her lover’s life, seven years of partnership, and the aftermath of his suicide. Several poems focus on the personal excavation of anguish and loss, and the always-incomprehensible nature of suicide. One poem (“3 May”) underscores the terrible inability to recall a loved one’s voice: “His voice escapes the earth’s atmosphere and travels / forever through space, growing fainter and fainter.” Ironic because they met at a radio station, where she “fell in love with his voice.”
Poems that draw parallels between the physical damage her former lover inflicts on himself in a suicide attempt early in the relationship, and the ritual damage to Ledi’s body via burial preparation are eerie. The mark of the narrator’s lover (“His body leaves a print in the wet humus of salmonberry and salal”) and the description of his perilous psycho-emotional state (“He absorbs the green dusk until he is heavy as earth. As the dark enters him, he decides it is time to go”) in “5 May”, and the poem, “Provisions for life after death” (“Remove the eyes. / Remove the teeth—seeds of life. / Remove the wet membranes”) are among the most evocative of such comparisons scattered throughout this outstanding book.
Although this book is preoccupied with death, Trainor also provides us with lovely breathing spaces through pages of botanical flower descriptions, together with black-and-white photos, that serve to ground us, a reminder in the midst of so much sorrow, of the living.
Jan Conn has published nine poetry books, most recently Tomorrow’s Bright White Light (Tightrope, 2016). She is a member of the collaborative writing group, Yoko’s Dogs, whose third book, Viola, is forthcoming from Pedlar Press. A solo art show, “Displaced Landscapes” will be on view at the Grand Mesa Arts and Events Center in Cedaredge, Colorado in the fall of 2019.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.