Still Life, Sotto Voce: Karen Enns’ Ordinary Hours

From the opening notes in “Prelude,” music plays a thematic and technical role throughout Karen Enns’ understated Ordinary Hours. “Nothing is happening. / Rachmaninoff plays in the other room / but there is nothing here.” The poem develops a series of negatives (“no” and “not”) which paradoxically create a presence through sound and sense. “Nothing” and “something” are characteristic nouns that rhyme internally with her participles. Significantly Rachmaninoff’s music appears indirectly in “the other room” where something may be happening on the other side of the wall. Rachmaninoff is part of “that other beauty” (the title of Enns’ first collection of poetry), while the softer tones of Chopin or Debussy (both alluded to in this volume) seem closer to the spirit of the poet’s piano. “Prelude” concludes: “There is absence, not emptiness, / and something close to echo.” This final “echo” reverberates with “close” as well as the keynote “no’s” that punctuate the entire poem.

“La cathédrale engloutie” alludes to Debussy’s Préludes: “A haze hangs over the streets, / an impression of light.” Enns’ impressionism derives from a synesthetic sensibility that combines with Debussy’s “columns of sound / becoming shimmer.” The sunken cathedral is a reminder of man’s insignificance, its presence seen as an “abandoning.” “Except for the leaves / nothing was moving” — again the noun of nothingness followed by the participle that stirs the stillness of “the static air.” Enns’ forte is “Pianissimo,” the breathing between phrases of hushed cathedral music and leaves of poetry.

Similarly, “Pianists at Night” uses sonnet and sonata form to create an impressionistic blend of music and poetry. This nocturne begins at midnight when “we walked with the music / still burning our fingers.” The keyword “still” highlights the poem’s soft sibilance and plays with its two meanings of stillness and endurance: “the world still lives, / still eats, still takes the garbage out.” These afterthoughts linger on the pianists’ skin: “Sometimes the cold left a seal on our foreheads / reminding us” and “Sometimes a certain phrase / would stay longer than the others.” From twilight to midnight Enns’ epiphanies transmute ordinary hours into extraordinary moments of experience, that other beauty within the mundane. The end of the sonnet, “Street lights / made perfect circles up the avenue,” recalls the “circles of flies” at the end of “La cathédrale engloutie.” Enns’ perfect circles and pitch highlight the shapes of her synesthetic impressionism.

The same aesthetic experience informs “William Street Elegies” and “Suite for Tools” where Enns turns a pitchfork into a tuning fork, the quiver of the quotidian. “Sotto Voce” also captures her “small voluptuousness” of vowels, “squint of listening,” and “undervoice.” These features appear on the book’s cover image, Fox Talbot’s Leaves of Orchidea (1839). The leaves in this early photograph appear fetal or amoeba-like, still yet impressionistically mobile. Whether alluding to Margaret Avison, Jan Zwicky, or Adam Zagajewski, Enns explores Canadian and European roots in her camera obscura, “as if breath / has more to do with memory / …. As if breath / has more to do with silence.” Her poems are both overheard and under-heard, words carved in wood: “There is silence as enormous, unframed thought, thought as unframed silence.” Her echo through chiasmus is a turning to undertone. Dolce. Cantabile.


Michael Greenstein is the author of Third Solitudes (McGill-Queens).



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