I first heard the poem “Donal Og” in a cottage by the sea. I was visiting an Irish poet at a time when I would probably have boasted that I knew something of Irish poetry. He asked me if I knew “Donal Og.” I said no. He asked if I had Heaney’s _Rattle Bag_ anthology and, again, the answer was no. Out came the book. It was late, quiet out and dark; the kind of blackness that settles along the northwest edge of the country, away from other houses, busy roads. There was a fire, coal I think, we’d been drinking and there was an ease in the room. The talk was mostly poetry, a bit of history. I was young in writing terms, and eager to learn. My host read the poem. He read it the way it is meant to be read–as a kind of spell. The first line–“It is late last night the dog was speaking of you”–is immediately unsettling, the “you” making the listener complicit. The alliterative sounds, loping rhythm and the repetition of “you” as the poem progresses pull you, the listener, in, as if you were at the end of a rope and being reeled steadily closer. On first reading the poem seems like a plain-spoken questioning of what went wrong between two lovers. But there is magic in it: dogs “speak,” cries are numbered, ships are made of gold and silver, impossible gifts are conjured. There is enchantment (in multiple senses of the word). But this poem is also an inventory of loss. Hearing it for the first time was like looking into a wound. But not a wound that could be ascribed to any one person, not like Raymond Carver’s work where we can say, “Oh well, Carver, he knew loss, there was the drink, the first marriage…” Rather, this wound sounded out of the past, and went on and on, unresolved and unclaimed. …
Louise Morey Bowman, Early Canadian Modernist
Rediscovered by Aislinn Hunter, poet and essayist.
Let’s say Virginia Woolf was right when she wrote that part of the poet’s task is “to find the relations between things that seem incompatible yet have a mysterious affinity, to absorb every experience that comes your way fearlessly.” Reading the Canadian poet, Louise Morey Bowman, it is the word “fearlessly” that stands out. This early modernist wrote with a sense of abandon, an exuberance, a friendly relationship with the exclamation mark. She published three books of poetry that displayed a bold experimentation: this earned her criticism from the literary circles of the time but also paved the way for such writers as Gwendolyn MacEwen and Elizabeth Smart. Yet, Bowman has all but vanished from our literary sight. How is it, this essay asks, that we can come so close to losing writers like Bowman so soon after they’ve set down a portrait of their time and place on the page?
There is a poem of Aislinn Hunter’s entitled “Everything Lost is Found Again” that is both short enough, and deceptively simple enough for me to quote here in its entirety:
the ring that lay for months behind the dresser,
the book finally returned by a friend,
apples reborn in the boughs of an old tree
and the years appearing suddenly
ripe fruit in the open hand.
The brevity of this poem is important, because it highlights Aislinn Hunter’s gift for poetic economy (which is not to say that her poems are always short; rather, that she is one of those poets who has an uncanny ability to say exactly as much as she wants with the most economical of means). What matters more, however, is the deceptive simplicity: Hunter is forever taking us into what we think of as familiar territory–whether it be familiar images, familiar ideas, seemingly well-worn philosophical notions–and revealing what was missed, in all that supposed familiarity: what we took for granted, what we didn’t want to acknowledge, or even–as in this poem–what we gave up on too soon….
(How Poems Work, September 2004)
“Wordsworth,” by Anne Simpson, is from a series called “Gesture Drawings.” Technically a gesture drawing is “a quick sketch based on careful observation” –an apt series title for a poem that “sketches” a poet. But “Wordsworth” is also a nod to inspiration. Here, in a lovely reversal, the present day narrator evokes the historical muse: “Give the guy a picnic” and “Let him have” are a retroactive permission. But not a High Romantic permission–the diction here is offhand. Wordsworth is “the guy” not “the great poet”, words like “fondle” and “needs” are derisive; the chopped syntax of “Oh how. And how” approaches mockery. So why the irreverence? Simpson’s poem (like Spalding’s and Zwicky’s) is intertextual. Intertextuality speaks not only to the relationship between texts but to ideas of individualism (“originality” “creativity”) and inspiration. The philosopher Barthes wrote “A text is … a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings…blend and clash… The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them”.
In “Wordsworth” Simpson examines the context of Wordsworth’s inspiration–but in a way which is counter and which speaks to other ideas as well….
(How Poems Work, August 2004)
What first struck me about “Notorious” was its sense of investigation. Here, Esta Spalding opens up a fissure in a life and dives into it. On the surface this is a poem about change, about death and resurrection, about how we inhabit ourselves. The form reflects this–the swathes of white space between stanzas are fissures in their own right and the unfinished nature of the ideas therein (lines or stanzas that end on words like “entered” “refusal” “stopped” and “find”) sends us into the crevasse while also creating a kind of poetic tension–fitting for a poem that references Hitchcock’s film _Notorious_….
(How Poems Work, July 2004)
Jan Zwicky’s beautiful “Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115” is constructed as a series of propositions. Each stanza begins with a gentle precept: “That we shall not forget…”, “And, though…”, “That the mind’s light…” and “That a letter…”. Taken as whole, the repetition of propositions becomes entreaty, and entreaty underpins that which I think is the thematic and tonal thrust of this poem: a call for optimism and beauty in the face of a wider reality.
What I love most about this poem is that it talks about ideals (honour, truth, grace, honesty and love) through an allusion to classical music, a medium (certainly in Brahms’ case) where we can easily imagine those qualities residing. And artfully, the qualities above exist in the poem without being listed as a set of nouns, rather they are presented in other contexts: as a verb (“to honour brown”), an adjective (“we will not grow more graceful, / but less”) as adverb (“honestly”) and as predicate (“beloved”)….