No Small Job: Robyn Sarah’s Pause for Breath

This review originally appeared in Arc 65 (Winter 2011).

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Robyn Sarah. Pause for Breath. Ontario: Biblioasis, 2009.
~Review by Carmine Starnino


Robyn Sarah can’t stop staring, and her poetry—largely set in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood—abounds with things she’s seen: black-garbed Hasids hurrying past, an Italian knife-sharpener ringing his bell, local boys larking on a metal balcony. She is always logging some ordinary, and ordinarily unnoticed, moment (“little Eurekas,” she calls them) and many of her poems don’t seem to do much more than set a standard of alert response to her surroundings (“Bars on snow: / fence-shadow, light / from a doorway”). This spectatorship occurs inside a semi-artless style inextricable from the poet’s wished-for invisibility: “Incognito in the little shops / is how I want to go.” Like the ephemera that often turn up in her pocket dramas—raindrops, twigs, breadcrumbs, fluff, dust—Sarah’s poems have a sublime plainness. They are at once down-to-earth and noble, homely and elevated. You might call them Canada’s answer to “sprawl,” Les Murray’s term for Aussie exuberance. Sarah hates filler (her bête noire as a critic is the annual glut of Canadian poetry collections fattened with “warm-ups, misfires, and exercises”). She doesn’t, as she’s sometimes accused, settle for less; she simply believes a little goes a long way. “Make much of something small,” she urges, and lives by it. Her precise descriptive siftings—an avocado “halved lengthwise, hollowed, / salted, dressed with lemon” or a rose in a vase “hung on the limp stalk / of its spent neck”—promote a vision of abundance as composed of luminous bits and pieces that never take up more room than they need.

To “make much,” of course, also means to insist on something beyond a reasonable sense of its importance. This is Sarah’s joke; a way of keeping herself, and her lack of pretentiousness, grounded. At what point, after all, does self-effacement begin to look like it’s peddling its own humility? But then, that is also Sarah’s message to us: have the courage of your banalities. Anyone can write a poem about eggplants, but to state the vegetable’s case as simply and deeply as she does in “A Praga Market,” fixing its traits in unshowy metaphors: (“skin / like leather, just wrinkling”) requires a smallness that takes itself seriously, a smallness that dreams big. This of course brings to mind Elizabeth Bishop, a poet also notable for her humble affections (“Homemade, homemade, but aren’t we all?) But Sarah’s tradition is larger: George Herbert, John Clare, Edward Thomas and William Carlos Williams. She belongs to a school of poets who take things at face value, whose poems represent an obstinate loyalty to the near-at-hand. Only by staying on the surface, they argue, can one find the deepest sounding.

Sarah writes about her kids, her cooking, waiting for mail, snow, birdcalls, running into friends on the street, daydreaming at the window, and middle-of-the-day surprises: an alley filling with the music of a neighbour practicing the English horn. She wants to reprioritize our penchants, to show ordinariness alone is certainly good. All this, however, introduces a double bind: by its very existence, a poem represents a large claim being made for a small thing and thus betrays the modesty Sarah seeks to celebrate. This is the signature tension of Sarah’s nine books. Because of it, certain ironies—creatively productive ironies—are available to her that elude more ambitious poets (poets, say, who dress up the slightness of their subjects). Sarah isn’t out to prove insignificance is in the eye of the beholder. The world, after all, is full of people who believe certain things are beneath their notice—and part of Sarah suspects they have a point. Her poetry, instead, flirts obsessively with ideas of irrelevance: “We are collectors all, and our / collections are collectors too, / collecting dust”. She does this through subject (e.g. the “pink star” of a drop of wine upon a page), but also through style. Take “Carried” from Becoming Light (1987):

The impulse running its course:
carried, like a leaf on air,
through air, to rest—not just
the motion, but the path it makes
no leaf will make again—to this
I give what self I can,
what sight, what will.
Or winter warmed: a smell,
fresh, tremulous, and sweet,
we say I spring, that breathes
from heaps of shrinking snow
gone lacy in the sun—-or steams
from rivulets that run
in all directions, out from under these.

A whisker past minimal, the poem is, in part, a description of melting snow, and, more broadly, a meditation on endings—nature as a place where everything is “running its course.” Form thus expresses what is being said through content. The irregular lines, the soft monosyllables, the run-on cadence: all this Sarah uses to mimic her theme of dissolution and disappearance. Sarah is always looking for subjects that provide useful analogies for her method. In this sense, “Carried” is a kind of primer, an ars poetica demonstration of what happens when poetry finds its own level: it seeks the irreducible, returns to first principles. The poem also suggests that smallness, uncompromisingly pursued, forces adjustments to a poet’s ambitions, delivering a blunt reminder of how little they mean. “Carried” is a document of vanity cut down to size, of an ego reduced to a stage-whispered awareness of self. It’s a parable about mortality, our time on earth. Sarah’s poetry, it implies, doesn’t strip life to essentials, it’s the result of life stripping her to essentials.

Smallness is no small job. Unlike minimalism, it doesn’t abbreviate data; it compresses information streams. That’s why “Carried” feels bigger than it looks: every vowel, consonant and syllable has received unhurried consideration. Amazing how so few words add up to a speaker “making much,” her mind at large in minutia. But this offers a related lesson. Because smallness needs to occupy a bigger intellectual area than is visible to the reader, it can only be written by those who have the whole of English poetry in their heads. Smallness believes the universe has been optimized for its love of precision, its high care for nouns and verbs. And in Sarah’s case, at the root of that artisanal conviction, is the fear that certain kinds of lived experience (what an early poem calls “the day-to-day, that bogs the mind, voice, hands / with things you couldn’t call poems”) will lapse unrecorded without her. This points out, again, the basic tug or contradiction in her work: how a considerable outlay of resources is invested in poems that do nothing more than lightly embrace the negligible. Crisp groupings of simple words— “leaf,” “air,” “snow,” “spring,” and “fresh” —become acoustic building blocks for preserving everydayness, yoking “things that matter and don’t matter ” into permanently memorable lines.

Pause for Breath , Sarah’s latest collection, conceives of itself as another stay against self-importance. The title conveys a second wind (“A pause to pull socks up”) but also, more interestingly, exertions of an aging body. Now 61—she published her first book at 29—Sarah’s new poems mark time, take stock, note the hour. In one, lost vigour (or the fear of it ) is reflected, and refracted, through the glimpse, from a train, of “a derelict auto hull / in a spring-green pasture.” In another, a yawn is what happens when “in the cave of the throat / a controlled wind / shudders and dies”. Once again, Sarah scores a victory. Read the right poems, and you’ll find speculations of decay so rich in tone and syntax they practically beg to be spoken aloud. But Sarah’s real triumph lies in getting the emotional proportions the way she wants them. Incidentally autobiographical, rarely confessional, her best poems estrange without defamiliarizing, respect reality while refreshing it. It’s a poetry of close-ups, of observations written inches from the world. (“What a glitter up and down the wire / as sudden sun strikes / yesterday’s raindrops!”) When Sarah is writing well, her language is both necessary and sufficient. Form becomes a “pause for breath” —a closing of the valve. “I threw the say / of how I felt / out from me,” she writes, serenely. Her lines are loaded with heartache, but light to the touch. Their spiritual misgivings and moral confusions are so immersed in an atmosphere of domesticity that they have the drama of “damp breath exhaled on glass” and are no less powerful for it. Case in point is the exquisite sonnet “Blowing the Fluff Away”:

The sprig of unknown bloom you sent last fall
spent the long winter drying on my wall,
mounted on black. But it had turned to fluff
some months ago. Tonight I took it down
because I thought that I had had enough
of staring at it. Brittle, dry and brown,
it seemed to speak too plainly of a waste
of friendship, forced to flower, culled in haste.

So, after months of fearing to walk past
in case the stir should scatter it to bits,
I took it out to scatter it at last
with my own breath, and so to call us quits.
—Fooled! for the fluff was nothing but a sheath,
with tiny, perfect flowers underneath.

The language is nondescript, details almost generic (“Brittle, dry and brown”). This is diction as iconoclasm—it dares the ordinariness of its flatness. As in “Maintenance,” her first great poem (“Sometimes the best I can do / is homemade soup, or a patch on the knee / of the baby’s overalls,”) Sarah has an ear for very basic sentence-sounds. The effect is an air-clearing sanity, directness cut with understatement (it recalls Donald Hall’s description of Jane Kenyon’s verse as “a hundred-proof glass of water.”) We also have another poem held together by its own enactment: right before our eyes, the bloom-turned-fluff ripens quietly and fully into metaphor. What is arresting is how, line by line, the poem gathers emotional force without tipping the reader to the power that is building. The origin of that fluff is rooted in memories and associations that are kept from us. Despite the missing data, the poem still functions as a hyperlink; it refers outwards. To what? Not so much regret as guilt, maybe even self-loathing. The poem harbours a secret shame (“Fooled!”). Its narrator is barely on speaking terms with herself. Indeed, many of Sarah’s I-see-this, I-see-that poems are often fed by private anguish. The stirring “As a Storm-lopped Tree,” for example, alludes to a “terrible event.” The poems try to keep up appearances but, as with body language, alert readers pick up hints. How else account for the subliminal oddities of this tidbit, which I quite like:

Things that wash up
in winter’s wake: an old sink
up-ended on a balcony,
seen through the open door—
flicker of maples leaves
in the drain hole,
the drain
draining air.

The ending has the pressure of a tweet, a tiny language-act zipping past as we read. But slow down: note the deft repetition of “drain” and the staircase effect produced by the patterning—see how, in each line, the word drops gradually toward the left-hand margin? This is an example of how smallness, like nanotechnological code, embraces structure and symmetry. It’s also an example of how smallness depends on sound , and exploits the way inflections carry emotion. How else explain why those final four lines (“flicker of maples leaves / in the drain hole, / the drain / draining air”) capture the music of loneliness and attrition? The eye that detects a “drain / draining air” can only belong to a body that feels kinship with that meaninglessness. This is Sarah’s most appealing side, when her poetry turns readers into intuitionists, seducing us into making much of so little.

But Sarah can also make too much of her ideas. Readers will need to steel themselves against the results: strained epiphanies (“What a blank ache / is day, / its labyrinthine paths.”), excruciating clichés (“Why do windows of slums flash / like jewels in the sunrise / as we pass them by?”), and tedious sermons (“This is too a life. / Who is to say that it is / worse than yours of mine?”). Even punctuation is affected. I can’t think of a significant Canadian poet more addicted to the exclamation mark. I counted at least 10 in this book, of which only one was (maybe) necessary. She can even make too little of her ideas. “Minus 20,” “Handful,” and “In an Evening Window” —four short descriptive lyrics which appear to aspire to a kind of Oriental simplicity—are a bit skint; too much is missing, nothing risked. This points up another peril of smallness loved not wisely but too well: it has a comfort zone. What constitutes a poem for Sarah isn’t really an open question. Her taste in form, both inherited and invented, can lead to static, ceremonial shapes. It’s true she has tried prose poems and long, complex lyric-sequences. But Sarah is partial to what she can control; compounds of standard English and slang (a trademark effect of many of Canada’s younger poets) seem too unstable to interest her. So if I have a complaint, it’s that I wish she could loosen her notion of what’s poetically permissible.

That said, there are a clutch of poems in this collection that put the boot to that complaint. “Lowly,” “Ho Hum” and “Gesundheit” are deadpan, fanciful lectures on unexceptional subjects (earthworms, yawning and sneezing, respectively). Sarah’s plain style meets the challenge by widening its register to include a welcome throwaway tone. Here are the first five lines of “Clock Song”:

Time creeps, time flies.
Clocks keep it and tell it,
tick it and tock it,
stand watch on a mantel
or hide in a pocket.

This is restraint governed by an ear that has absorbed Mother Goose. Each syllable ticks forward, and sound, overall, blooms. Read the lines again and again: they don’t wear out their welcome (on a third reading, I had already memorized them). The rest is just as good. The poem is disciplined but never abandons its gratuitous delight in words; the whole effort sayable, even singable. (“Clocks need us to wind them / and keep them true. / We depend on clocks, too, / and don’t always mind them”).

Absorbed into the poem’s euphonies is the fear of death. The clock song, after all, is the song of time running out. It’s a melody to tap your toes to, and the jaunty tune helps makes the implication—we are all goners—stick.

Fear of death paired with love of language is not something we often see in Sarah’s toolkit of effects. But she uses it here to invent a new way for her poems to sound. Take “Splinter.” Composed in eight-line stanzas of lapidary speed and generous impulsiveness, “the poem describes a visit to the hospital to remove “a toothpick-sized wedge / of old wood, none too clean.” Seated “among bleeders and breathers / through oxygen cones,” the speaker is embarrassed to see herself fuss over so minor an injury. But behind the unceasing patter is a spooked mind; the poem is simply trying to calm itself down. “Splinter” is a great example of what Sarah can do: take something unpromising and keep adding surprises to it until the idea swells with originality. The poem is also a rare example of Sarah nearly getting carried away. As things are, she remains a nuts and bolts poet. She places her subject-matter up front, while in the background, meanings assemble:

all told, full five hours of fidget
for the sake of a digit.
Then a ten-minute procedure.
The needle, the scalpel, the tourniquet,
tetanus top-up, wipe-up of ooze,
a dressing of gauze: at last a prescription.
Day’s redemption: to learn the infection
soon would have spread to the bone,

that we near lost a finger—caught in the nick!—
for a paltry rough sliver edged under a nail.
—But that is just telling the tale.
A splinter, now what is a splinter?
A broken-off bit of the mass of what’s Other,
come to invade, to pierce to the quick?
Something to bleed around—waken us—fret us?
So breath itself lodges in us.

This is a knock-out ending—and nothing youth could ever arrive at. The last line is remarkable not only for the way “lodge” suggests the classic cliché of terror writing (“breath lodged in my throat”) but how it recalls our very first breath as infants, that sudden in-rush of air that seals our fate. To see a splinter as the grim reaper’s scythe might seem like overkill, but you don’t have to be a worrywart to understand that we die from life. Like some insidious virus, it “lodges in us,” slowly asphyxiating us—in stages, over a span of decades—with every lungful of air. In a sense, Sarah closes with the act that starts the clock. Breath and death are, of course, perfect rhymes, though it’s not a bad idea to reread that last line with the words switched, and feel the jolt. This is magisterial poem—no dud notes, language on a winning streak. Sarah’s vocabulary is so discriminating, each word wears the complex self-investigation that brought it into being. The result is a form that feels uniquely hers: disciplined, compressed, emphatic, airy.

Most of Sarah’s poems are nowhere near as good as her best. This makes it distressingly hard to crow about her collections as a whole (it might be one reason why Sarah has never won a prize). It also means Sarah is a poet tailormade for anthologies (and she is certainly represented in many of them, including the Norton). This is not without cost. Living poets associated with specific books as well as specific poems—think of Erin Mouré’s Furious or Don McKay’s Night Field—often have an easier time generating an air of inevitability around their careers. Books seduce into reading, as William Logan writes, “in sequence of an expectation.” That is, they create a compelling narrative—one that frames the great poems while allowing us to forget they are few and far between. A reputation like Sarah’s, however, balancing on stand-alone achievements, can be all too easily left alone. Pause for Breath likely won’t change that. Its strongest poems will be welcomed into the canon, while the world takes little notice of the poet who wrote them. Sarah probably isn’t too concerned. “We will begin to reclaim poetry,” she writes in her collection of essays, Little Eurekas (2007), “when we learn to praise poems, not poets.” How utterly appropriate, then, that one of the most popular poems in the book was first published, unsigned, in Arc Magazine’s Anonymous issue (Arc 61). “Echoes in November” resonated strongly with readers. It was included in The Best Canadian Poetry, 2009. It also triggered an admiring response, published in a later issue of the magazine, by Zachariah Wells, who declared the poem “cut in marble … so perfect are its parts.”

“Echoes in November” is what you might call a kitchen sink epiphany (or an example of what D.G. Jones calls Sarah’s “poésie de cuisine.”) The speaker, unsurprisingly, is something of a homebody. She stands at the chopping board, while her mind roams, idly bringing together unlike ideas: things that shadow things, / that breathe or borrow / essence not their own”. The poem is a master class on how poems get written., Specifically, it’s a lesson on how much goes on in a poet’s head when it seems nothing is. The entire poem exists to let Sarah tee up a point of view (“Correspondences are everywhere”) in order to crush it down to the microscopic intimacy of her conclusion:

knife in hand
above the chopping board,
savouring, raw, a stub
of vegetable not destined
for the pot,
and faintly tasting
at the back of the palate
the ghost of a rose
in the core of the carrot.

Those last two lines (“the ghost of a rose / in the core of the carrot) read as a manifesto for Sarah’s own method: crisp, pure, clasp-tight, aphoristically concise. The very pith of pithiness. So much is stuffed into that sense-quickening image: the passing of time, shedding of old selves, the inevitability of death. Sarah is a one-woman-and-her-acoustic-guitar kind of poet, her plinking notes deepened by philosophical sonorities. But there is another association buried deep in her use of “rose,” a word that, like an antennae tuned to the subtlest of signals, picks up T.S. Eliot’s remarks about the “disassociation of sensibility”—his belief that, in 17th century poetry, intellectual thought broke free from the experience of feeling. Eliot argued that, unlike Donne, for whom thought was “an experience; it modified his sensibility,” Tennyson and Browning “do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose” (italics mine). And then he wrote this: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.”

Eliot’s theory that poets are “constantly amalgamating disparate experience” shadows Sarah’s poem, which, in its final image, proves Eliot’s theory by transforming the jumbled sensations of her taste-cued Proustian recall into a “new whole.” The apparent modesty of the poem also belies the intellectual architecture holding it up. We’re reminded, once again, that smallness is the trick of packing a limited space with implication (Eliot’s “smell of cooking” seems to have taken up residence in Sarah’s kitchen). Sarah budgets these clues carefully, making sure there’s enough to splurge on other things, like grammar and tone. The poem’s form— a skinny column of thin-sliced lines—appears as a discrete absence, scrupulously shaped but scarcely asking for attention. This is Sarah’s ambition : that the subtlety of her art, and the quiet career attached to it—will find itself magnified by the surrounding tradition.

But smallness courts neglect. Composed in a minor key, Sarah’s poems seem out of scale with so much going on now. Sarah asks to be judged on her brass tacks, but readers are after other things: imagistic ravishments, supersaturated effects, spice-warm sounds. So perhaps, for many younger poets, my praise might seem much too much about too little. This would be wrong. There’s only one smallness about Sarah that exceeds its merits: her readership.


Carmine Starnino‘s most recent book is Lazy Bastardism: Essays & Reviews on Contemporary Poetry (2012). His fifth book of poems is due out from Gaspereau Press in Spring 2016.

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