Maureen Scott Harris’ evocative Slow Curve Out places us in conversation with the natural world and explores the possibilities and the apparent limitations of language to communicate with the Other. Her collection opens with “Walking in Saskatchewan with Rilke,” a lyric spoken from the point of view of a deeply meditative yet playful narrator who describes her failed attempt to engage Rilke in the beauty of the prairie landscape. The poem recalls Rilke’s own “A Walk,” in which his speaker is grasped by the ineffable and changed into “something else which . . . we already are.”Harris’s poem follows a similar trajectory; however, her spiritual experience is an embodied communion with the land: “things surge into being, here, claim eyes, claim / mind, claim my very heart, beating and beating.” “Here” refers both to the prairie landscape that “claims” us (and so inverts the conventional trope of humans claiming ownership through naming) and also to the page where Harris’s poem “surges into being.” “Here” is also an offering, an invitation to the land to “claim” her mind and heart and so to enter her fully. The poem concludes as the speaker imaginatively transcends human-animal boundaries and becomes what Rilke suggests “we already are”:
pulsing makes me want to throw back my head
and yap like any old dog, yellow fur rough with dust,
skin flaking, and a flea in my ear driving me
wild, so I’ll run for miles, nose down on prairie
scents, heart crazy with sky and wind.
This motif of crossing borders between self and other to know “differently”—“I want three minutes in the skin of another animal”—as well as the recognition of the alterity these borders protect, creates a dynamic tension that permeates the text. One of Harris’s strongest poems, “Epistemology: The World Speaks,” explores this tension by considering the limitations and possibilities of language in allowing us to understand an Other. While she recounts how a man’s words “opened / a space in my head, and everything rearranged” (14), her own “words fall short” (39) in her interaction with nature. Despite learning the names of trees from a book, she knows that walking into a forest would still result in “encounter[ing] nothing / I could name” (14). By identifying such naming as insufficient, Harris open up a space within which “the world speaks” (15) and we might listen. Even as she delineates the shortcomings of language, however,she reminds us that it too has a place—“our talk might also be to praise”—and invites us to “choose words with care. / Let our sounds play among the others” (82).
While Slow Curve Out contains primarily nature poems, she intersperses these with poems about relationships, aging and disease, violence and capitalism. Her final poem, “Homecoming,” concludes with the advice, “[l]earn this, not / to despair but to vanquish despair. / Be astonished,” and it is this astonishment that she models and then recreates for her readers throughout her collection.
Alexis Motuz is a PhD student in English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, ON. She is currently researching representations of the land in Canadian women’s poetry.