by Erin Moure
THE SO-CALLED Prairie anecdotal or narrative tradition is one of those categories that reflect largely the eye of the beholder, blinding it to other streams and processes. The work of Claire Harris, a Calgary poet, is one cure; it is one of the most varied to come out of that elemental
Western landscape. Especially in Fables from the Women's Quarters (1984), Harris uses the long sequence in a way that both integrates and pushes forward many voices. Her best work challenges the reader's beliefs about the organization of the world, the reader's one-sidedness that she didn't realize lived in her.
In The Conception of Winter the same skill is present. Harris is not afraid of the page; in it, she sees space and potential for shape where others see only typing paper. Perhaps her skill is most easily seen in shorter work such as "Of Iron, Bars, and Cages," a poem in three parallel voices, visibly "barred," in which the text of comfortable middle-class women relaxing in the pleasure of a summer drink is "pushed at" by women's voices that are more marginal, witnesses to violence and loneliness. Most writers wouldn't have gone further than the smooth surface of the centre poem, but Harris presents the contradictions of smoothness and discord in the same place, as they exist in the reader, and I like that: her acknowledgement that one speaking voice lies; thus the refusal of such a voice, such a taking.
The use of page as space is also apparent in the sequence "Towards the Color of Summer," which takes over half the book. The beauty of this sequence is in its multiplicity of forms: postcard, short-lined poems, long-lined couplets, poems with rhythmic space/breaks inside long lines (recognizably a Harris style) -- all tied visually by a small star at the top of each page. In leaving the rigidity of form behind, the piece can appear at first glance too loose, some of the postcard poems too inconsequential. A careful reading, though, shows a complex stage-set of views and intensities, in which the restless search for transfiguration through journeying results only in repeated acts of anticipation. These are, perhaps, what we actually search for in journeys.
Longer titled sections portray three women travellers. In the shorter postcards (printed at angles, three to a page), we see, in contrast, images of an old man, a boy, or of museums, churches, and crumbling gardens. Men and works of men are, in this poem, the small, angled background; the women's restlessness and restfulness take the centre stage. Many travel poems chronicle sights
seen -- probably my conditioning expected this and left me a bit dissatisfied, even after I realized this poem's voyage was to inner space and connection with others, merely assisted by the habitbreaking displacement of the "voyage."
Although some poems in the sequence ("To Dissipate Grief," "Death in Summer") have a concentrated urgency of rhythm and breath and space, not all the poems are as strong. Some are almost too pleasurably "conversational." As a result, I felt I was missing something; further honing, I couldn't help thinking, would give this sequence more impact.
The looseness at the beginning and occasional dips in the middle of the book are made up for by the final long poem, "Grammar of the Heart." Here the page is both aural space and physical distance; the poet speaks of her mother's dying far away, of the daughter's grief, and of "how here to say the unsayable." It evokes for me how our sense of language is so tied to our mothers; after all, our first experience of rhythm and sound came when we inhabited her space. In Harris's poem, the mother inhabits the page by sheer resistance; we see how she used not words but silences, yet for the daughter the writing down is critical -- even if it finally diminishes, like cut flowers brought to the mother's bed, these flowers "stricken like this verse/extinguishing what is left of her/that is wild and full of grace."
Yet what can be said without diminishment? It's a question central to poetry, and Harris's work engages the reader in it too. Like the poem "Of Survival," the book questions love and relationships in a life where women must first of all survive.
as in the beginning i thrash but now against the walls of winter unable to sleep through the world I walk as my mother did stoking the fluttering image