Illuminates human need, by the season: Susan Briscoe’s The Crow’s Vow

Susan Briscoe. The Crow’s Vow. Montreal: Véhicule Press (Signal), 2010

Review by Dean Steadman.

Susan Briscoe’s poetry collection The Crow’s Vow delivers a narrative in which “there are no closed circles.” The four sections of the book parallel the cycle of the seasons: each contains 16 untitled poems, each one 10 lines in length arranged in couplets. The overall effect suggests order and rationality, symmetry and balance, predictability and harmony. Yet the emotional and mental world of the narrator, as she struggles to understand the dynamics of her marriage and the demands of love, is one of perpetual change and conflict:

“Your complaint: / invisibility. It is hard to see you / across the hectares of corn leeching / the lowlands between this hill / and the city squatting on its river—I argue, just to win. / Were I honest, I’d admit to being deaf / as well as blind. We have become abstractions. / A theory of opposites. Or, a conversation / looped back on itself, the half twisted telephone wire / a Möbius strip.”

Commenting on form and content in The Crow’s Vow, Briscoe explains: “The structure made the content manageable for me as I wrote, containing the emotional chaos, while the smallness of the poems reflects the narrow focus of the content: these are not poems with a sprawling range. Because there is little actual progress towards conflict resolution in the narrative, the progress of the seasons provides forward motion. But of course the seasons are cyclical rather than linear, which suggests the perennial nature of these relationship struggles.”

One of Briscoe’s major accomplishments in The Crow’s Vow is her ability to sustain the narrative poetically, and not allow the poems to lapse into the syntax and structure of prose. Briscoe, a writer of both poetry and prose, explains her choice of genre:

“I didn’t want to prioritise story and be subject to the conventions of prose. I found that the image was the most efficient—and least maudlin—way to express the emotional content I was after, and presenting an image freed me from the requirements of the sentence, as in haiku. The sense of narrative then largely came from stringing these images or moments together in temporal order.”

The result is a long poem that uses a core of natural imagery to take the reader into the sometimes elated, more often troubled thought processes of the narrator:

“A fog, / but somehow / the sun shines through it, finds the yellow in every leaf. / The crows are bossing us all up / but the other birds are quiet, / contemplative now. / Or, disquiet. / Perhaps / they have flown already”.

The reader empathizes and is transported to a heightened consciousness of the frailty of emotions: “Saboteurs, we two, stretching our tenuous bond / like my boys their elastics, aimed at the eyes.” The Crow’s Vow is a fascinating, delicately-crafted exploration of human need—“What comfort the unquestioned / necessity would be, / but we are silenced by too many needs”—and Briscoe’s treatment of her theme is unique and masterfully spare: “It didn’t seem necessary to tell the story more explicitly for the reader to grasp what was at stake emotionally: most of us have experienced a longing to be more loved. Though focusing on particular images from my domestic environment, I wanted to allow the poems to work metaphorically to express something more universal.”

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