Steven Heighton has published six poetry collections to date and, as he notes in his preface to this selection (from all six, plus fifteen new poems), two of his principal sources of inspiration are dreams and translations. The dreams are “usually in the form of lines overheard, so to speak, in sleep and translated into writing,” while the translations are not simply of other poems in other languages but free expressions of the spirit and character of their sources, modern and ancient, “renowned and obscure.” In his virtuosic debut collection, the Gerald Lampert Award-winning Stalin’s Carnival, which begins with poems about beauty and the body, he builds a powerful centre with translations and meditations spun out of early poems by a young man who later morphs into the sinister Josef Stalin, and then concludes with poems of entropy and decay. His early lyrics express tension, effort, and physical testing, as in “Restless,” where the speaker finds temporary rest, not on banks of the sea, but only after climbing a cliff, only to awake restless again. And a reader encounters an abundance of free translations and what Heighton calls mistranslations in subsequent collections, such as The Address Book and The Waiting Comes Late, with references and ekphrases generated by the likes of Sappho, Georg Trakl, Rimbaud, Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam, Konstatin Kavafi, Catullus, Homer, etc. In Heighton’s case, the ekphrases double their value by being more than homages or approximations; they have a deft functional role in the totality of each book, as they play with the metaphoric energy of translation as metamorphosis, as in “Endurance” (Stalin’s Carnival) that pictorializes a female swimmer’s dynamic motion, and in “High Jump,” which highlights the poet’s clever way with transforming metaphor, as its pole-vaulter suggests images of dolphin, diver, and gull.
In the foreword What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation, editor Rob Taylor gives his inspiration for the collection: 2002’s Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Nightwood Editions) edited by Tim Bowling. Where Bowling’s editorial vision encompassed an homage to Al Purdy (who died in 2000), Taylor’s honours the work of deceased poet and Tragically Hip singer Gord Downey. The title, What the Poets Are Doing, echoes a lyric from the Tragically Hip song “Poets.”
Heighton opens his sixth collection with “The Last Sturgeon,” where a man “always walked / a little above his life / not knowing it was / his life, while it waned / from walking-coma / to coma,” introducing a theme of emotional disconnection that runs throughout The Waking Comes Late. In the titular poem, a man laments his knowledge of plant life has come too late to share with his mother, and in “All Rivers Arrive,” a woman weeps over her dying mother, unable to express what she wishes she had while the mother was coherent, before cancer took control. And in two early poems about having a crushed larynx, the speaker considers the things he should have said before his power of speech was imperilled: “I meant to tell you, I / thought I told you / I couldn’t / quite.” In these excellent poems, Heighton shows how technical mastery can merge with acutely relevant subject matter to great effect. In fact, when it comes to language, Heighton is a remarkably efficient poet: I rarely find, as I often do when reading Canadian poetry, myself mentally editing as I go along. Words here are too precious to be left out of place, whether his own or those of others.
Misquoting Cromwell while reading Robin Robertson…
My father told me this one.
In April 1653 Oliver Cromwell–officially England’s “Lord Protector”, unofficially a military dictator, additionally a war criminal given to thanking God for his mercy but disinclined to show much of his own–dissolved the last vestige of Parliament, known as the Rump, with the following speech: “You have sat here too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God, now go.” And the Rump dissolved. Cromwell had thirty musketeers with him, of course, and a reputation for savagery; he might have said anything and dissolved the Rump. Told a joke, if he knew one. Issued his order in Basque. But (my father said to me, repeating that one-breath speech) what is it about those twenty words that makes them so damn effective? (When I was a boy, he liked to be teaching me things all the time. Especially when driving me places.)
I scratched my nose. I can’t remember, now, if I came up with any sort of response.
Certainly the Lord Protector’s speech had been short. Had the Rump dissolved in sheer gratitude? That was an age of interminable speeches, wasn’t it?
Twenty words, my father said, and twenty syllables. Count them.
They’re all one syllable, I said.
Right! he exclaimed–[_one two three!_]–smacking his free hand on the dashboard, dust rising with each smack. Through the windows a span of amber prairie under lucid blue sky: the Trans-Canada Highway, westbound lane, the Rockies still tucked under the horizon.
Each syllable, he said, [_bang_], [_bang_], like the slam of a judge’s gavel after he gives sentence. Or–or like a musket shot from each of those soldiers he brought in with him. Cromwell.
I thought there were thirty soldiers, I said.
Thirty, twenty–the point is there’s no arguing with it. It’s strong speech. People think they can make what they say impressive by using a lot of big words. Words with Latin roots, Greek roots. Jargon. Argot. Polyunsaturated syllables. It’s those hard little fist-shaped Saxon words that really grab you by the lobes.