Flux and Circadian Renewal: Carmelita McGrath’s Escape Velocity

Since 1997, there have been well over 2000 poetry collections published in Canada—counting only the books produced by accredited presses. If, like Carmelita McGrath, you released your last book in 1997 with a small press in Newfoundland, you should perhaps forgive the poetry-reading public if you’re not on its radar. In the interval between To the New World and the present, McGrath has not been silent, having published three books in other genres, a couple of poetry chapbooks and a good number of poems in magazines and anthologies, but Escape Velocity arrives nonetheless as something of a surprise.

Part of the surprise is how lyrically direct McGrath can be, especially compared with our emergent period style. Whereas a lot of new poetry is elliptical to the point of near obscurity, McGrath tends towards candour and clarity. In a poem the conceit of which involves a cold-call from an insurance seller, McGrath spontaneously confesses: “I sometimes feel helpless in the passenger seat.”

The imagistic texture of Escape Velocity is dappled. McGrath has said that she is “nocturnal, and quite a few of the poems in the book reflect that.” A reader will indeed be struck by how darkly Hardyesque her vision can be, but the literal and figurative gloom of her poems is offset by shafts of sunlight—I can think of few recent books in which the quality of light is evoked so often and so well—and mordant wit, respectively. The book is also unified by tropes of flight and arrival, burial and rebirth. Although she works only occasionally in metrical stanzaic forms, she has a great ear for rhythm and instinctively knows when to throw a well-timed rhyme into a free verse poem.

Her eye for structure is also revealed by the book’s architecture. In the first poem, McGrath writes that “Too much already has been burned.” She has said that she “wanted to express all the change that happened in that long stretch” between collections, a sentiment echoed by the last lines of her title poem—and of the collection: “that certain knowledge / of never going back. The burn of change.” This is a poignant irony, since it actually does bring the reader back to the beginning, reinforcing those cycles of Heraclitean flux and circadian renewal embodied by McGrath’s key themes and images and reminding us that escape from Earth’s atmosphere (and whatever other circumstances to which we might, by extension, feel bound), however we might long for it, is not readily achievable.

The book is not without flaws. Fifty-four poems doesn’t sound like a lot to show for a sixteen-year gap between books, but given how long she was willing to wait, it’s a shame she didn’t give the best work a bolder frame; this collection would have been markedly sharper shorn of twenty-odd pages. She also has a tendency, at times, to rely too heavily on abstractions to carry a message more capably conveyed by concrete imagery. The best work, however, is what matters most, and there are so many fine poems in Escape Velocity that I would dissuade no reader from making their acquaintance.

Zachariah Wells (www.zachariahwells.com) lives in Halifax.


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