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Dreams and Translations:
Steven Heighton's Selected Poems 1983–2020

Steven Heighton, Selected Poems 1983–2020
Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2021.

Steven Heighton has published six poetry collections to date and, as he notes in his preface to this selection (from all six, plus fifteen new poems), two of his principal sources of inspiration are dreams and translations. The dreams are “usually in the form of lines overheard, so to speak, in sleep and translated into writing,” while the translations are not simply of other poems in other languages but free expressions of the spirit and character of their sources, modern and ancient, “renowned and obscure.” In his virtuosic debut collection, the Gerald Lampert Award-winning Stalin’s Carnival, which begins with poems about beauty and the body, he builds a powerful centre with translations and meditations spun out of early poems by a young man who later morphs into the sinister Josef Stalin, and then concludes with poems of entropy and decay. His early lyrics express tension, effort, and physical testing, as in “Restless,” where the speaker finds temporary rest, not on banks of the sea, but only after climbing a cliff, only to awake restless again. And a reader encounters an abundance of free translations and what Heighton calls mistranslations in subsequent collections, such as The Address Book and The Waiting Comes Late, with references and ekphrases generated by the likes of Sappho, Georg Trakl, Rimbaud, Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam, Konstatin Kavafi, Catullus, Homer, etc. In Heighton’s case, the ekphrases double their value by being more than homages or approximations; they have a deft functional role in the totality of each book, as they play with the metaphoric energy of translation as metamorphosis, as in “Endurance” (Stalin’s Carnival) that pictorializes a female swimmer’s dynamic motion, and in “High Jump,” which highlights the poet’s clever way with transforming metaphor, as its pole-vaulter suggests images of dolphin, diver, and gull.

Heighton can be rhetorically self-conscious when he strains metaphor, as in “the sunbeam’s flowing escalator” the opening line of “Birthday” (The Ecstasy of Skeptics), or when he indulges in imagistic hypertrophy or over-emphases, as in “English Cemetery, Gaspesie” (The Address Book), where the tombstones typify erasure, annulment, and decay. But there’s no denying the fluency, musicality, and conviction in his best personal poems, (“2001: An Elegy”) or his repertoire of kennings (“Collision”), keen sensory details (all his travel poems, especially in Foreign Ghosts), poignant metaphysical reflections (“The Waking Comes Late”), and powerful political suasion (“Baffled in Ashdod, Blind in Gaza”). This book (chiefly in the poems from The Ecstasy of Skeptics) shows Heighton attempting to find a balance between ecstasy and skepticism in life and in writing, with the balance shifting in time. His moral conscience is always impressively active and without being in overdrive, but so is his literary craft with its rich word hoard.

My caveat is the lack of a foreword by editor Karen Solie, that could outline the reasons for her selections and a suggestion of a controlling overarching shape for the collection. 

Keith Garebian has published 27 books to date, including eight poetry collections, such as Frida: Paint Me as a Volcano (2004), Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems (2008), Children of Ararat (2010), Poetry is Blood (2018), and Against Forgetting (2019). His chapbook of cancer poems, Scan, edited by Shane Neilson, has just been published by Frog Hollow Press in a limited edition of 100 copies, and next year he will have two new poetry collections forthcoming from Mawenzi House and Frontenac House. One of his Derek Jarman poems was set to music for choir and instruments by Gregory Spears, in the company of a poem each by Thomas Merton and Denise Levertov, and can be heard on the CD “The Tower and the Garden” (Navona Records). Some of his poems have been translated into French, Armenian, Hebrew, Bulgarian, and Romanian.