WHAT I MOST WANT TO SAY ABOUT K. Page's newest book of poems is, buy it. Hologram (Brick, 72 pages, $11.95 paper) is a rare combination of elegance and honesty, the work of an exacting writer, a fine thinker, and a warm human being. In the 14 poems that make up the book, Page pays tribute to some of her favourite poets -- Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda, Leonard Cohen, Mark Strand -and celebrates with passion and delicate humour the natural world:
It has to he loved the way a laundress loves her linens, the way she moves her hands caressing the fine muslins knowing their warp and woof, like a lover coaxing, or a mother praising. It has to he loved as if it were embroidered with flowers and birds and two joined hearts upon it.
The poems are glosas, a 600-year-old Spanish form that opens with and incorporates four lines from another poet's work in a fixed pattern of placement and rhyme. Page's foreword, in which she articulates the process, describes her reading journey, and explains influence and affinity in a birdsong analogy, is as lucid and pleasurable as the poems. What she offers the reader is her own extraordinary presence and, obliquely, a comment on the mutuality of writing and reading:
Only our golden selves went forth to greet them that part of us which receiving blows feels neither pain nor grief, the part that senses joy in a higher register and moves through a country of continuous light
The book itself is a gem, handsomely presented, with a cover painting and page decorations by the author.
Another Brick publication, Neile Graham's Spells for Clear Vision (80 pages, $11.95 paper), is also lush with elements of the physical world. However, the poems themselves do not always transcend description -- lyrical and attentive description, but oddly distant:
Summer's end. Wildflowers dry and fall to weeds, brawn-gold mats
that drift around my feet while the winds step up the slope of the ridge
to tumble down the leeside, spilling rain.
("Three Choices and Old Grasses")
Graham is a meticulous writer, but for my taste she reins in her passions a little too tightly. In "Beach-combing along the Pacific Rim" she claims, "With each rattle of wind // all salt and twigs, forest and sea / we are truly here." Effectively, the "rattle" often overwhelms her presence. In her need to be fair to the complex reality of the world she documents, Graham sometimes loses the pure impetus of the moment. But there are lovely poems in which the meditative phrasing is integral -- "Berlin Dreams ... .. Bird at Daybreak," and the first section of "Out of Speech, Out of Silence." There are also breathtakingly fluid poems, including "Washing at Sunset," which opens:
My hands touch the water and I'm,
crying. Simple as that.
I keep trying to put things together,
more than tears and water
while the sun, squeezed
between cloud and mountain,
focuses warm as a hand on my back.
I hope Neile Graham continues to put words together; her writing offers many quiet rewards.
Scars of Light (NeWest, 114 pages, $13.95 paper), by contrast, is not a quiet book. It is a harrowing journey with the author, Beth Goobie, into the details of her abusive childhood to reclaim "the true ones," those splintered selves who, she says,
... offered themselves in my place, they took my body and gave me the ones in the maple tree, the veranda, the overhead light.
What they appear to have given her as well is a startling clarity of vision. There is a prismatic rendering of place in the opening poems -- of the library, the school, the garden, the basement- and an ominous listing of detail: "the furnace room, its shelves of preserves./jars of peach-fleshed beans and summer guts" ("basements").
More striking still is the drive for emotional accuracy that enables her to write a loving history of her mother (complicit in her children's abuse) that begins, "my mother made candles from crayons she collected / leftover from our sunshine, our happy faces, our green- / peaked roofs" and ends with "my mother's face over the fire flickering in and out / of shadow, exquisite in the patterns / of its truths" ("making the light, the dark and the blue").
The book is a journey through repeated acts of sexual and physical abuse, through a family's suffocating interdependencies, and a brother's suicide. It is not an easy one for the reader. But it is ultimately an account of survival, with much insight into the relationship of spiritual and physical hunger and into power imbalances on all social levels, as this excerpt shows:
on the pantry bulletin board, five snapshots of third world children in torn tee shirts, eyes hung among thin bones. children of spirit, father sent them his name on a monthly cheque. It brought breakfast, lunch, supper, snacks, god. eating, they believed. it was the same for us and father knew it. forgive us, be prayed and still the dark cells multiplied within us, blood rushed to feed the-in, stomach and bowels pushed the stuff through, there was nothing I could do to stop this.
("let the children go")
Three of these "new" books are in one way or another recycled from earlier works. Dig Up My Heart (McClelland & Stewart, 224 pages, $16.99 paper) is a substantial volume of Milton Acorn's poems from 1952 to 1983, selected by Al Purdy. More than half were included in a previous Selected published in 1969. A number of these are touchingly spare, earthy, or constructed out of charming bluster; they are more appealing than his later work, which is by contrast considered, more politically vocal, sometimes distant. There is great range in the quality of the poems included. But what is consistent is the personable tone, alternately tender and full of itself.
Victor Coleman's Lapsed W.A.S.P. (ECW, 128 pages, $12 paper) is a selection of poems previously published in a handful of small volumes from 1979 through 1990. Coleman's voice is distinct, but it is not personable. The writing swings from giddy rhyme to narrative to impulsive (sometimes impressive) sonic nonsense:
"When the three falls in the dessert while you're eating can you feel it? or are you just glad to see me?
It's undeniably witty, occasionally insightful but as often silly. There is a rather desperate lightfootedness to it that blurs any prospective connection with the writer -- though Coleman makes it clear that for him the show and not the substance is foreground:
The tenor in me wavers between romance and tragedy
but the dialogue is so good I can't help but be content
Reconcilable Differences (Bayeux Arts, 172 pages, $19.95 paper) is an anthology that attempts to prove that poetry by Canadian men has changed during the last 30 years. This seems to me patently obvious and a rather empty premise for a collection. But Christopher Levenson, who edited the book, considers the women's movement to have been the critical catalyst for this change, and states in the introduction that "the dominant attitude among these male poets is more likely to be one of self-questioning, bewilderment, and a desire to explain" and that their voices "are mostly quiet, unassertive, vulnerable, sympathetic, understanding, meditative."
It's true, these 11 poets are nice guys -- and more to the point, I would say, more than half are consistently fine writers: the book includes Don McKay, Don Coles, David Zieroth, and John Barton. It does not contain their best work, but it does contain good writing on what it is to be a son, father, sensitive lover, singer, teacher, nurse. Ironically, Levenson's attempt to exemplify an "awareness of changed and broader perspectives" serves to diminish the range and abilities of the writers he has included. But there are good collections by all readily available, and Reconcilable Differences, in which poems are carefully attributed, may serve to introduce readers to them.