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Light through the Trees:
Richard Sanger's Dark Woods

Richard Sanger, Dark Woods
Windsor: Biblioasis, 2018.

Dark Woods is the third offering from Toronto poet Richard Sanger. The collection is deeply honest and somewhat uncomfortable in its portrayal of a dim, ordinary life touched by momentary excitement and its processing of aging, parenting, and mortality. While the book’s language doesn’t deny there are extraordinary moments in life, it doesn’t give way to them: life is confined, limited to what might have been, or may still be. There’s no obvious aspiration to live beyond the shadow of the trees.

The title poem makes a glaring reference to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which pits what we’d like to do against what we ought to do. Similar to how the speaker in Frost’s poem has an unfulfilled desire for the “lovely, dark, and deep” woods, the subject of “Outside In,” the first piece in Dark Woods, has a “vain aspiration,” forced by the inevitability of time, and pushed to the proverbial water’s edge. Here, Sanger calls the correlation of the term’s meanings (aspiration as breathing or living and aspiration as achieving or dreaming) ‘vain.’ The term “vain aspiration,” then, undermines desire and establishes obligation; it also completely determines the tone of the collection from the outset. Indeed, neither the Frost poem or the Sanger poem invites much deliberation because each is fenced in by a particular moment: for Frost it’s “the sweep / Of easy wind” and for Sanger “the bone-chilling water.” Like the stream that carries language and history to the sleeping infant in “Babble” (Sanger’s third poem), there’s no divergence in “Outside In”; just what lies ahead.

Even falling in love is predetermined in Dark Woods: “The Way It Worked” portrays two lovers engaged in “the old ritual,” gingerly going through the motions “as if it had never been done before.” He’s afraid to “plunge / into those dark pools,” and yet, in the poem “The Inbox,” he does: “but the truth is… / I’ve known you, as I sink into your eyes.” And the two lovers, in bed, are concerned with growing old: “these cracks in the rocks” that collect and pool doubts and debts: “What’ll we do when we’re old / what’ll we eat?” Their anxieties about the future are as nagging as present quotidian prods like having to get up, make coffee, and answer emails. In the end, it seems the lovers’ fears are well founded and culminate in the imagery of the final poem, “Don’t Ask.” This brief composition adopts a nihilistic tone in that it suggests life’s “leaking ship” spirals downward, the world plunging, cathedrals “falling to pieces,” life’s work “like snowflakes into black water.” Thus, the aspiration at the beginning of Sanger’s collection is indeed vain in its striving and in its breathing.

Dark Woods would be a disturbingly depressing series of poems if not for the book’s touching relationship between father and son. The bond, as depicted in the title poem, is innocent and sweet, their two heads on the same pillow as they recite the Frost poem. As the night goes on, the father worries about his role as a parent:

There are so many things
I don’t know as I attempt to guide him
I might as well be lost
in some dark forest.

His anxieties are reflected by his reading of Frost, which is practical to the point of pessimism: “Whoever owned those woods will have sold them / and they’ve probably built a subdivision there.” And it’s the simplicity of the verse, and the childlike way in which his son recites it, that draws him back into Frost’s fictional world of snow, pines, and cedars. In Dark Woods reminders of childhood innocence give the inevitable hardships of adulthood, the “miles to go, miles to go,” fresh meaning.

Luke J Frenette is a writer from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. He took his MA in English literature from the University of Windsor and has taught writing as a part of the Student Success Centre on the university’s campus. Luke is currently working on a collection of poems and seeks future publication.

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