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Apples with Salt
by Michael Greenstein

The striking cover of Janis Rapoport's fifth collection of poetry, After Paradise, features a composite, "Hallucination", by a British artist known as Hag. At the far right, an interior of fireplace, carpet, and chair yields to an external scene with children near a lake. As the eye moves to the far left, a dark series of wildernesses takes over. There are no clear boundaries between wilderness and domestic interior. Instead, an ominous shading destabilizes the stillness of traditional frames; trees seem to settle on the mantelpiece in the living room. This unsettling, surreal quality pervades many of the poems in After Paradise. The very title is double-edged: though the expulsion from Eden comes to mind first, we also remember that we are "after" paradise in a utopian quest for that ideal place nowhere to be found.
"Borders", the first section, begins with a fitting epigraph: "at the edge we see familiar things end and something else begin, something which makes us try to recall another state of being." Rapoport's poems focus on edges, before blurring into other states of being, transformations of boundaries between land and water, stability and flux, Canadian landscape and poetic sensibility. Take "Beach", for instance:

Time is unmade here at the border
of rock and sky. Under brindled water the hours
hide, fall away, disappear with the salt
until you are unknown, unthought, unformed.

The dominant "un-" prefix hints at a tidal rhythm, and the run-on lines break down fixities; the mantra-like quality of "under" and "until" links the initial "unmade" to the concluding words in the stanza, where a persona dissolves in contrast to the hard rock and eternal sky.
In the second stanza the dominant prefix changes to "re-", to suggest transformation after the initial unmaking:

What rite can re-form, re-make,
return you from water, from sand, from the low
dark leaves of a fruit bush pocked with rust?

The question invokes and evokes mythical rites of passage, liminality, metamorphoses of prefixes and pronouns from you to we, before returning to "unwanted kelp flowers" at the centre of the poem. "Or else we can't hear you,/ the unsinging, the unspeaking, the unliving." The drowned and buried mystery continues to the end: "We're at a summer border of ourselves,/ of each other, our small chiselled histories." Borders contain both order and disorder between land and sea, self and other. The moon monitors the water, "asking each white pulse/ to unchart and undo our unknowing." Understanding comes from a lyrical stripping of the self at the edge of "Beach".
Most of the poems in this section are situated in the Maritimes: Halifax, Purcell's Cove, Parrsboro. "Boreal" is the last and longest poem in "Borders", and it begins by asking:

What journey hasn't begun near a river
in a world whose syllables are joined
through the water-marked palimpsest of bodies?

Rapoport offers northern and surreal palimpsests, superimposing lyric on landscape, words on worlds, running lines on bodies of water. Countering the northern element is a wind from the south: "helpful, we are told, for crossing the lakes/ and narrow channels that are their inbetween." Indeed, this is poetry of "inbetween-ness" gliding with cool Atwoodian metaphors in a canoe "as your paddle dips/ and does not dip into indigo water"-the ink of quest and creation. With the Group of Seven the poet paints a Heraclitean flux of absence in presence: "Beneath this canopy of rock you place and do not place/ your thin hand into the same river. You are and you are not." Synaesthetic details disappear in a bog that is "archive of pollendrift". This is no ordinary canoe trip, but a random voyage of imagination with dark demons, ancestral masks, ruptured memory. The mythic Canadian canoe trip ends where it began, at the borderline between dream and stream:

We drift and we do not drift downstream.
And in the dreams we do not dream
we are, and we are not.

The title of the second section, "In the Carousel of Space", derives from Gwendolyn MacEwen's Afterworlds. Rapoport show her range here: from several haiku poems to the witty "Gossip Ragoût", with its sardonic poetic recipes, and the equally witty "At the Horse Races: Breeder's Cup Day", with its inventive and playful naming.
The third section, "Ghosts and Angels", begins with a surreal sonnet, in "Saltwater Ghosts", another instance of this poet's fascination with living and dead bodies of water. Through "small tongues" of water she returns to land, guided by a citadel tower and its polished clock-face. Metaphoric interweaving and personification link poet and nature, and the face of time with summer eyes absorbs the human element from seasonal recurrence. Although the tourists have disappeared, "someone is running, scarcely./ And the clock is tocking brine, chronometry." This vague "someone" will become the poet by the end of the sonnet, while the "talking" brine at the centre of the poem picks up the tongues of water at the beginning. In the second half, a mysterious man appears and disappears through the brick wall of the tower, and the poem ends mysteriously with the chronometry of brine ghosts:

Now I've become the scarce, running sound
but the bricks won't let me follow, and the clock
won't tell me how, or when.

The clock refuses to tell time, and we are left with the deep mystery of sounds, images, and aqueous spectres.
The sequence of sixteen "Saltwater Ghosts" poems gives way to the seven parts of "Angels", some written surprisingly in lines of plain prose. Since angels are, among other things, "Guardians of the Entrance to Paradise", they prepare for the final section of the collection, "After Paradise". In the last stanza of "Angels" an angel replaces the Muse of the creative process:

An angel falls out of a book, then disappears
from the room where the book, as yet unread,
is still being written. The book lies open
at the angel's page, waiting for chaos, or a carpet;
waiting for syntax, waiting for words
as yet unknown, waiting conceivably for wisdom.
Like Klee's "Angelus Novus", Rapoport's paradise is a liminal realm of waiting and writing in time and of disappearances in space; it entails a process of becoming, before and after Paradise.
In the final section, "Cottage Plots on Posthumous Lane" recalls the earlier playful naming of "At the Horse Races: Breeders' Cup Day", while "Misinterpretation of Dreams" recalls the inventive recipes of "Gossip Ragoût". The concluding poem in unrhyming couplets opens, "In roadside orchards strung with yellow apples/ undressed branches cross the autumn sky." Paradise appears at the margins in roadsides or crossroads where the lines of verse are strung together and undressed to reveal nature in its nakedness. Every couplet contains a surprise, occasionally an epiphany: "From somewhere a koto"-the combination of vagueness and specific rarity, as "In someone's garden a pheasant calls out to the ground." Step by step the poet moves from a world beyond illness and behind shutters, to the ultimate between-ness of Paradise:

All night daggers from across the river light the
Between these shores. The moon pulls. Nothing

In the morning the air has the sheen of new
the sound of honey. It feels like the ripeness

of apples in the orchards after Paradise, or the sun
in the doorway your beloved is holding between
her hands.

Having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, the poet catches Eden at the threshold in a synaesthetic sound of honey, the sweetness and light after Paradise, and the felicitous, hallucinatory fall.

Michael Greenstein is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition & Discontinuity in Canadian-Jewish Literature (McGill-Queen's).


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