Poetic Tools Well Wielded: This Was the River by John Pass

The first poem of the book, “The Weight Against Beginning,” crystallizes the struggle to restart a poetic practice and find new ways of expression after success with the old. (Two of his earlier books were shortlisted for major prizes, and a third won the 2008 Governor General’s Award.) His conclusion encapsulates a feeling familiar to many of us, that a poet needs to write: “Needs. And these tools unwieldy.”

For pure reading pleasure, it is difficult to beat the section of the book titled “Creation of the Animals”—after the painting by Tintoretto—which considers creatures from elk to insects. “Squirrel” starts with the descriptors “frantics, squabblers, fur-fist bodies” and sent me to my dictionary for the delicious new words “chunterers” and “crozzling.” “Elk” moves from dusk through night to “the sun’s one syllable bellowing morning.” In “Deer” the reader experiences their “Sinew and twitch and stilted / stepping.” These poems move with the zip of dragonflies, hunker in longing search for a missing toad, rejoice in their own sounds. In the poem “Cougar,” after the title, the word itself does not appear until the very last position in the last line—a striking embodiment of the animal’s careful invisibility.

The book’s final section turns to the inspirations of family and daily life. Short, tender poems celebrate new grandchildren. In “Holding Arthur,” an unexpected conclusion explodes with feeling:

Holding his sleep-
ing breathing, as if holding the rest
of the world, the day
after Pompeii.

The opening work in this section, “Near Greenwood,” is a sequence of five poems, each on the surface addressing a different topic but linked by a sense of the finiteness of human life and threats to lives in nature. A close look at the first poem of the sequence illustrates Pass’s fine touch: condensed observation (“rubble reminder of townsite / mined through into open pit by ‘58”), moving detail (carved gravestone that reads “I would have been eleven”), and effective choice of language (“a shattered / deer on the maintenance truck’s tailgate”).

This book offers no evidence that Pass’s tools are unwieldy. There is joy in these poems, and beauty. But also recognition of what humans are doing, and have done, to the natural world. Pass’s deep feeling for nature results in poems not of anger, but of sorrow and regret. These are poems for our time.


Jean Van Loon’s first poetry collection Building on River (Cormorant Books, 2018) was shortlisted for the Ottawa Book Prize. Her stories, poems, and reviews have appeared in literary magazines in the US and Canada and in Journey Prize Stories. Facebook @Jean Van Loon; Twitter @JeanVanloon.


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