In reading the poems of Crispin Elsted-and perhaps I read with too bookish an eye-I envisage each poem as if suspended, in a kind of vellum luminosity, against the brightness of a blank page. This is not only because the author is a celebrated typographer and printer (indeed, several of the poems here were first printed as broadsheets or in quite limited editions by Elsted's Barbarian Press in Mission, B.C.-not incidentally, Sono Nis Press have done a superb job: this collection is beautifully designed and printed). Rather, it is because the poems themselves often have such a shining substance. The best are infused with a kind of ripened silence, as though they took shape patiently but irresistibly in their author's imagination over a long time.
This is a book of candours. Its author is in love with whitenesses: the whiteness of crystals, of snow, of salt, of a wall, of the virgin page. There are poets enamoured of the mysteries of clarity and of radiance; one thinks of Mallarmé and of Paul Valéry, for whom "le temps scintille," or of the Hart Crane of White Buildings. Elsted appears to aspire to this contemplative and yet sensuous company.
He is also much given to delicate openings of the self, to candour, not to mere exposure. In his longish poem "Eclogue", this gentle disclosure draws the reader in with a calm and winning insinuation:
When I see you in a room with others, moving,
or standing quite still as if listening under
trees, or in a shade
cast where you happen to be, when I see you here
I remember the attention I have paid to small
precise things or to
the large incomprehensible sideshows of clouds, or
when it is unexpected. I remember the attention
which once, when I was very small, I gave to the
button of a shirt
my father wore, a red shirt, made of soft stuff,
and smelling of tobacco.
The poem is an attempt to describe and convey that vaguely distracted state, between two attentions, as it were, out of which a poem may arise; and the patient weaving of immediacy and memory, the modulations of the voice between soliloquy and address, create a confidential and complicitous tone that could be precious if there were not such a constant and subtle equipoise between inner and outer worlds.
Elsted is fond of exotic forms. The collection opens with a sequence entitled "14 Changes on a Sao of Huang Bau-xi". (Each of the fourteen poems is crowned with a vivid Chinese ideogram in the calligraphy of Huang Bau-xi). But his real adventurousness lies not so much in these; after all, Canadian and American poets for much of this century have been drawn to the imitation of Chinese and Japanese forms, not always to conspicuous success. Rather, his bold willingness to write occasionally in rhyme and in strict stanzas is a radical act in the Canada of today, when slovenly, ill-shaped, or shapeless poems predominate.
Consider his poem "Aubade", in my opinion the first successful aubade, or poem about dawn, since Philip Larkin's bitter and despairing version of some years ago. He has chosen rhyming quatrains, and the rhymes (or often, slant rhymes) fall with a light and inevitable music:
Listen. The morning opens with a creak of birds:
candour of jays, palaver in the thrushes' nests,
inklings of dawn in sparrows, dim tenebrous chords
plucked in the hedges. Listen: quavers, and rests:
crotchets, and rests; and breves, as if the chant of
urged itself upwards, climbing the familiar air
fledged with a celebration and a dance. Your lids
locket your dreaming. Tangled in your smile, your
wantons the light...
The stately phrasing is modulated skilfully with terms from another register, "creaks" or "palaver" and the faint puns on "quavers" and "rests", which until the next stanza leave the reader uncertain whether they are meant as nouns of action or as musical terms (they are in fact both). This is a successful poem also because the lines sing, as a true aubade should. Notice the pleasing slant rhyme on "lauds" and "lids" and the almost Elizabethan verb "wantons". Often nowadays, poems in "strict" forms appear in poetry collections as trophies, with all the glazed lifelessness of antlers on the wall of a hunter's den. But the difficulty of writing in such forms is not merely a matter of technical competence but of making sure that the form corresponds in some credible and organic way to its occasion, and does not just set the poet an exercise. Happily, Elsted's formal poems have this felicitous concomitance along with their skill.
Consider, for example, another poem that shows his audacity as well as his mastery in linking subject with apposite form, his "Sonnet with Grammar, Looking over the Weald of Kent from Boughton Church", which I quote in full:
You can increase the distance sheep by weed
by looking first at the wall at the edge of a grave
and over it to the first copse where deer
engage grass and from there the windbreak of
announces the mile in green curds
beyond which and over a stocked pond it hides
farms tuck and an utter smoke makes work
draw the fields around it with a jerk
before on a hedgerow the looking slides
a plain reach indistinguishing birds
in haze-deckle phrasing three oasts and the bees
succumb words behind my arm and mere
nouns are naming verbs nudge particles place and
and grammar is distance in memory of Charles
This is beautifully realized: the progression of the poem follows the viewer's gaze as it surveys the landscape, while the rhymes in their wide span contracting toward the centre enclose the whole experience of the sonnet in a single sweep of the eye; this allows the poem to open out as it were from the middle, where the clinching couplet now sits, just as a landscape opens out from the extreme peripheries of our sight. The result is a kind of "binocular sonnet", if I may so term it. The brusque rhyme of the central couplet- "work/jerk"-brings us up short as we read, just as we do when gazing outward while some "utter smoke" punctuates our glance. (I leave the reader the rare pleasure of looking up the word "oasts"; nowadays our poets so seldom send us to the dictionary that an uncommon English word in a modern poem has become an event to be celebrated.) The homeliness, almost ungainliness, of the sonnet's last line is fitting for this rural prospect.
Elsted writes other, much larger poems in more open forms. I am not sure that these are as successful as his briefer ones, for he too readily indulges his propensity toward abstraction. Moreover, the white subjects toward which his imagination moves are unusually susceptible to a kind of featureless blankness that endangers the vivacious specificity of good verse. In the shorter lyrics this propensity is corrected by a counterbalancing sensuous turn. By contrast, in the ambitious (fifteen-page) poem entitled "Crystal-lography", there are definite longueurs during which even the best-disposed reader will grow restive. Contemplation too quickly becomes a kind of self-referential rumination. This poem, despite several impressive passages, seems oddly self-indulgent. Snow and snowflakes form its central pattern of imagery, but it is almost always seen snow, or snow as pattern. The poem lacks the cold smell of the snow, or its feel on the skin. True, the poem is also about how we see, about how we know, about how we construct pattern from what our eyes give back to us; it is a poem, as Elsted says, about "walking purely to see." But there are too many passages like this:
An axiom is nub truth, but it may not serve for
if merely convenient. Convenience means we do
not look or hear,
and that these flying about us, rising for scrutiny
will remain so many of the same things in a
pattern we call
a certain weather, or a winter, or snow
if we are close enough. This is to say that when we
are so close
we should look without unnecessary time, to see
what is clear.
What startles may be a great beauty and give
Then consider that patterns order what we must
use without thought
and that they have a use and may not be poor.
This is not only a commonplace but it is drably expressed. The language lacks conviction. It does not embody its own injunction. Elsted is talking about something here; he is not conveying its essence. Another longer piece entitled "Fantasia, Meditations & Odes on a White Wall" exhibits some of the same problems, though this poem is more successful, in my opinion, perhaps because Elsted breaks it up into more manageable sections; perhaps, too, because he is somewhat more playful here than in "Crystallography", as in these lines:
John saw it, the city
of God, dressed in light, with all manner of jewels
and alabaster and ivory accounting for the white
I keep returning to because I sit
here in deep woods, thinking that a white wall
would appear interestingly contrasted here
among the bush, would be like an idea
suddenly found in the mind in a clear light
singing an unattainable note of superior quality. I
a white wall there beside that deer that stands
snuffing my man smell.
This involves a deliberate interposition of some abstracted entity between the considering mind and the world outside, and it is clearly a willed device of Elsted's thought. He is tantalized by the tendrilling affinities between world and self, and to span that gap, he takes the bold course of interposing the blankest vacuity between them. Here, however, in contrast to "Crystallography", he summons the senses directly as well, as in "my man smell", or "the moon in puddles stalking the late walker," or "stern civil daisies" or "a camellia blossom dead in its leaves" or "my lips on your wrist," and these palpable impressions ground his more ethereal meditations in a real earth. This poem is perhaps not fully successful; there are too many "dicta", too many vatic or gnomic pronouncements for my taste, e.g., "the laws of religion are the laws of poetry," a proposition so general as to be meaningless.
It seems to me, in reading and re-reading this distinguished collection of twenty-five years' poetic production, that the kind of rarefied, perhaps even reclusive mode of many of the poems is at once their strength and their vulnerability. Elsted has held aloof from fashions and trends, and this is exemplary; no-one can accuse him of having rushed into print. His voice is distinctive, and it is entirely his own. On the other hand, writing in some isolation may also account for the occasional rambling self-indulgence, especially in some of the longer pieces. Even so, Crispin Elsted has cultivated his unique gift with patience and craft and delicacy. As a result, he has written a number of memorable poems, among them particularly "Love Poem", "The Holy Place", "Aubade", "Swan Written", "An Index", "Sonnet with Grammar...", "Eclogue", "Trillium grandiflorum", "Elegy: 36 Sentences for Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo" (an unjustly ignored malgache poet whom Elsted very justly honours), "Ode at the Graves of the Children of Aberfan", and several sections of the fourteen-part "Kenfield Variations" that conclude the volume. If these are the most accomplished of the poems in this outstanding collection-that is, if these affect the reader most immediately as realized works of art-even so, all the poems are worth reading, and reading again, for even the less fully realized are honourable and interesting. If they do not always succeed completely, it may be because their ambition was pitched so high. That alone is worth celebrating.
Grove Press will bring out Eric Ormsby's For a Modest God: New & Selected Poems in April. He is a professor of Islamic Studies at McGill.