A place dark enough to see: Susan Gillis’ The Rapids

In The Rapids—a finalist for the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry in 2012—Susan Gillis takes us on a beautiful, inspired, and, yes, often watery journey. Her first collection, Swimming Among the Ruins (Signature 2000), was shortlisted for the 2001 Pat Lowther Award, and her second, Volta (Signature 2002), won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry in 2003. Proven to be a formidable poet in her previous collections, Gillis opens The Rapids, her third collection, with a run of particularly strong poems. “The Days” opens the book with a gesture toward potential: “By evening everything had softened. / Toads appeared in the garden around the porch. I became a kind of flower, flush with intention, / brimming, last-ditch. Ready for anything.” And so Gillis sets the tone for the fresh, striking images to come.

Gillis’s poems are personal and introspective. In “Quadra Island Suite,” the speaker makes note of the particular: “I drain my glass, / putting off lighting the lamp / then do, / turning the windows black.” And in “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness,” the images focus on a gesture: “He holds / his blade like a light, makes his arm a bench. / There is no training for love, only love. / The man waits, then excises the thorn.” Although they revel in minute detail, her poems have a universal appeal—the personal lent out in a common currency. The topics of the poems are far-reaching—from literature to literary figures; from bible stories to train stations; from loss to architectural oddities. The one main thread that binds the collection together is nature. However, Gillis seems more than aware that the inherent danger of “nature poetry” is its quaintness, and she gracefully sidesteps any potential preciousness at virtually every turn. In “View with Aftermath of Storm,” for example, the landscape is rough and unruly: “Where I touch, the cells recoil. / Already the edges are withering, / calling silently to the young leaves, still green and buoyant. / In the unsettled sky a few birds hover—three, maybe a fourth. The rapids, a darker darkness, are sutured with foam.”

But the most powerful aspects of the collection are the precarious glimpses, peppered throughout, and often offered up in relatively plain language, that allude to a frightening, jarring misapprehension of reality. For instance, in the penultimate poem, “Glimpse: Sufficiency,” “We are sitting with strangers. The man at our side / is not the one we married with dreams of orchards, / and he too suffers. / Even at night light furnishes the sky, the trees. / The trick is finding a place dark enough to see it—” The Rapids is a beautiful collection with a unique, quiet power that persists throughout. Gillis is a gifted poet, and is certainly one to watch.


Mark Lavorato is the author of three novels, his most recent forthcoming with Anansi. His first collection of poetry, Wayworn Wooden Floors, was published by the Porcupine’s Quill in 2012.


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