"The poet is a little god," proclaimed Vicente Huidobro, the Chilean avant-garde poet. By this he meant that the poet must at every turn create the world: invent it from the confused matter that is life. I wonder now as I read Shadow Cabinet, whether "creating" doesn't also mean reconstructing from matter lived, passed. The preponderant sensation one gets from immersing oneself in Richard Sanger's poems is of experiences lived and recreated with remarkable mastery.
The thread that runs through many of them is a yearning for what is lost and is recovered only through the poem. The first section, "Echo Drive", opens with "Madonna of the New World", an eloquent expression of a North American phenomenon. In three stanzas of almost classical perfection, Sanger gives voice to the immigrant experience by focusing on the single mother and her son, nowadays a frequent version of the family. Using the metaphor of Madonna and Child, he conjures up the loneliness that material fulfilment gives, coupled with the nostalgia for the lost country and the emptiness of the present that are in every immigrant's heart. Immigration is conceived metaphysically here: as our condition as exiles in a world we choose and reject at the same time. A tone of longing pervades most of "Echo Drive".
This tone discloses an acceptance of our condition as exiles. "Touring the Atrocities", for example, is a powerful testimonial to the political injustice that plagues much of the Third World. It is also a clear criticism of the attitude that many "politically correct" writers assume when speaking about social conditions in Latin America. The poem is punctuated with flash images, clues, such as the words "Christ of the Andes". The reader suddenly understands that this is Chile, sometime in the 1980s. Through excellent use of narration to establish rhythm, Sanger expresses the tragedy of becoming an exile by witnessing and recording human misfortune. The intimate description of a girl's humiliation thus becomes a metaphor that carries universal poignancy when juxtaposed with Christ of the Andes:
He slashes his wrists
And the mountains, like breasts, start to bleed.
The poems in "Past of Snow", the aptly titled second section, deal largely with sensations of childhood and early adulthood. Symbolic moments in the poet's life are recalled with a feeling of joy that resonates throughout the poems. Structured so that two parallel central images work to emphasize each other, "Travels with My Aunt" works well at fixing in time what must be a fairly universal teenage male anecdote. Humour and lightness are the dominant elements in this poem, which is saved from becoming a mere divertimento because the voice stays in the first person.
In "Nocturne", Sanger succeeds entirely in rendering that specific moment in the evening when the sun goes down in a north-eastern landscape:
I hear the pad of footsteps
Down the path, I hear the creak
Of cedar, the sudden shriek
As tomahawk meets neck, the snap,
And, on the horizon line,
Like spirits in their last throes,
Like paralytics, like ghosts,
The dark, unrepentant pines.
His expert choice of words lets us experience the scene without actually being there: the sound of the axe falling on the tree, the mystery of the landscape overcome by shadows. Shorter lines and words chosen for their imagistic power, these are Sanger's strengths-especially when recalling specific physical spaces. There isn't the weight of description to bar the reader from entering the poem's sphere.
This is particularly true of "Spanish Divan", the third section of this collection. More than in the other sections, these poems work as a continuous unit, they play against and for each other like counterpoint, like mirror parts that define the whole. The opening poem, "The Byron Syndrome", aptly tells us that these poems are inspired by Spain, but strictly from the point of view of a visitor. Sanger understands the Spanish world and knows its literature: this set of poems is in many ways a tribute to Spanish poetry, specifically to its Andalusian traditions as modernized by poets like Federico García Lorca and the "Generation of 1927". The poems come to life with reminders of the space they inhabit, the colour, the cadence of the language as conveyed through images of narrow, winding alleys and dark bars. While reading "Spanish Divan" one can't help but feel that Sanger has reached the peak of his technical abilities, that his use of form serves him well to convey themes and ideas with great perfection. Some of these poems are remarkably fluid, as in "A Tourist in Cadiz", where sky and drink reflect each other like a mirror:
It's the juice we drink, or so the locals say,
And here, at their westernmost extreme,
That absent fruit imbues the skies
With shades that run the whole gamut
From molten flax to molasses,....
Some poems, like "Dark Night", feel timeless. Here the poet epitomizes the traveller as observer and recorder of stories. Through the use of a more traditional narrative structure, Sanger achieves just the right cadence to give us the illusion that we are walking through a story told to a traveller, while the images of the story stream by in an almost kinetic fashion. We feel as overwhelmed by the saturated history of the place as the poet does.
Interestingly enough, it is in "Odysseus and Calypso", inspired by a Max Beckmann painting, that Sanger speaks most eloquently about the Mediterranean landscape and its particular magic. Perhaps because of the jaggedness and frequent juxtaposition of visual elements in expressionist painting, the poetic images they inspire in Sanger come through with unusual dynamism. One wishes there were more of this in Shadow Cabinet, that the constraints imposed by such perfect poetic form weren't so binding. It is a struggle that all good poets must constantly engage in: freedom of the imagination versus beauty of form.
Which brings us to "Talk of Statues", the fourth section of the book. There is an attempt at expressing the frequent stillness of physical reality as captured by the human gaze. The problem is one of degree. One can't help but feel that in Shadow Cabinet's final poems the poet has gone too far. These poems are almost too still, static even. Beauty of form has become the chief stumbling-block preventing emotion to flow out and touch the reader: the poem can't transcend being a mere decorative object. This fact notwithstanding, Shadow Cabinet signals that a poet of unusual talent and poetic maturity has come into the fold and Canadian poetry is all the richer for it.
Beatriz Zeller has translated (with an introduction) The Invisible Presence: Sixteen Poets of Spanish America, 1925-1995, poems selected by Ludwig Zeller (Mosaic).