Each moment is twinned,
you said, each apart from each.
If you listen, there are two
rivers. We inhabit nothing
so much as loss.
There could be no better summary of Esta Spalding's third book of poetry than its title, Lost August (House of Anansi Press, 96 pages, $19.95 paper): the collection is a short encyclopaedia of loss. By mixing loss with its necessary accoutrements--memory, forgetfulness, love, friendship, guesses, and incompleteness--and then filling the book with the warmth of the Hawaiian sun, the surf, the summer, and intrusions of cold that accentuate its general tone, Spalding has created a tight, elegant, and insightful volume of poetry.
Lost August blurs the line between long poetry (an indistinctly defined genre at the best of times) and lyric poetry. It is divided into three, somewhat autonomous sections: "Everywhere the river &", "Each girl, the one", and "A yellow dress". Each section could easily exist as a separate long poem-the poems that make them up are that closely knit. Within each section, the longer poems are much stronger than the shorter ones. "Aperture", which won the 1995 Malahat Long Poem Contest, "The Anatomy of Freighters", and "August" all run over several pages and are probably the volume's best offerings.
Spalding's poems lean on one another and need to coexist in order to realize their latent meaning. Turn, for example, to the startling second strophe of "August":
The corn, its secret ears
studded like microphones, transmits August
across the field: paranoid crickets, the noise of snakes
between stalks, peeling themselves from
Spalding frequently mists the categories of technology and nature, making jet fighters as natural as pelicans. The cumulative effect of the quotation within a marvellously unified collection is, of course, lost in this review. In order to read this book properly, one must gulp it all, once or twice, then begin to isolate the details. Reading it in its entirety gives the reader time to find the holes, the chance to see where things have been lost or forgotten. After that, restoration can begin; the reader can start to find the people and places that Spalding (the poems tempt me to cast writerly decorum aside and call her Esta, I do not know why) has lost for them. Mysteries such as "Or the Eye"-a strange heron-poem in a single unfinished sentence-begin to make sense.
Despite its coherence, Lost August is not a consistently strong volume of verse. There are some phrases, such as "twilight fighter", that I cannot bring myself to like, regardless of the strength of the poem that surrounds them. Nevertheless, I cannot come up with a single poem that should have been left out or that does not add to the overall effect of the volume.
I keep remarking on the unity because it is the book's one exceptional strength: it turns Lost August from a collection of well-written poems into a beautiful guide to deaths, departures, and forgettings, written for the one who has been left behind. It is sensuous, physical, colourful, full of animals and things that act like animals. The verse is careful and intelligent, her best poems take a singular idea and embed one exotic name after another, making "tomato" and "kiawe" into equally exotic words. I am not sure if this will last, but tonight I am in love with this book.