Marilyn Gear Pilling’s seventh book of poetry, The Gods of East Wawanosh, comprises two sections. The first (I) emphasizes the book title, following the wayward, messy, traumatic, and poignant lives of one farming family through several generations in East Wawanosh, Huron County, Ontario. The second (II), “The Lives That Surround Us,” takes the reader in a different direction, focusing globally, the poems distinctive in scope and temperament.
The opening poem “i. Name on the Mailbox” sets a nuanced, conflicted scene, evoking the pull and power of land in which landscape details are telling: cedars along a rough drive, long, unkempt grass swishing on the undercarriage, a gate to an outer yard. Although the gate is open, it doesn’t feel inviting. A father and brother are “present” on this farm that owned them and ruined their lives, but not, in this initial take, a mother. There’s real bittersweetness at work in section I, deeply embedded in this initial poem.
Second up, “ii. Leavings,” is characterized by the abandonment of both people and place: a young man sneaks out of the house before daylight, leaving his young wife and son “to live on / porridge, thistles and stones.” Unsurprisingly, but with tragic consequences, the son later marries someone who frequently threatens to leave. The portraits of the mother and father in “iii. Father” are distressing. The mother is relentlessly critical of the father, and the daughter-narrator learns to treat the father in a similarly mean-spirited manner. In “iv. Birth of Son and Heir”, the joy shown by the father is short-lived and undermined by subsequent family dynamics. A beautiful poem, “vii. Eye of the Farm,” describes a swimming hole hidden from sight, surrounded by willows, with “water spiders, crayfish / stonefish, families of leaves,” that provides an idyll and refuge, which the children, brother and sister, feel is the only place they belong.
The sequence of 28 poems in section I portrays, in mostly unromantic, unstinting terms, the isolation and beauty of farming life, such as a community picnic (itself nearly anachronistic) where “the dads and big boys arrived, signs of the hot day threshing // on their overalls and caps” and the father refuses to work on the Sabbath, “though the farm’s broken fences / and bull thistles cried out to him.” These poems are the fulcrum, the centre of power in this strongly imagined section.
In Section II, even as the narrator travels far afield, to Cairo or Newfoundland, it is the rootedness to Huron County that powers the best poems. In a delightful tribute to Elizabeth Bishop entitled “Elizabeth Bishop Said,” the narrator is in the midst of anxiety, turmoil, and alone-ness in a Japanese garden in Le Jardin des Plantes when she is unexpectedly comforted by a brood of hens—even as she recalls her aunt chopping hen heads off, on a farmyard stump. A three-page poem on aging, “On Turning Seventy,” quoting from John Berger, John Donne, and D.H. Lawrence, among others, is both meditative and rueful as it grapples with questions about the dead (do they surround us?) and dying (where are they going?), and wonders how to take leave of each of the senses.
In both sections, landscape, at times claustrophobic (section I) and wonderfully open and alert to shades of meanings in other geographies and cultures (section II), is used as metaphor to excellent effect.
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.