legend: a story coming down from the past; a body of such stories
Into The Early Hours is Vancouver writer Aislinn Hunter's first collection of poetry. In a sure voice, the poems weave ancestry with autobiography in long, leisurely lines and a clear, storyteller's syntax. From the opening poem, with its recognition that origins have a powerful effect that can't be sloughed off even over generations ("And we swallow our own skin, our tongues/ Moving thick in our mouths against stone walls, valleys, rain"), Hunter takes us through the anecdotes and small legends that make up a family and personal mythology, providing a narrative to the life of the poet.
As her intuition warns, "There is no pure history, only a mess of it, a muddling." Though quite capable of developing strong metaphors that can pull you right into the situation ("The petals bursting open, shout, /argue amongst themselves, /arc their heads until you can see / down their throats"), she uses them sparingly. Instead, she prefers the skeptical distance of simile:
The noose around the Appaloosa's neck grown into her.
Its threads like skin peeling slowly back, like the splitting
of a cocoon, like the forked vein in my father's arm when he takes an axe to wood.
The words 'like' and 'as' are used in nearly every poem. Along with the generally prosey phrasing of her loping lines, this technique might easily keep us at a nostalgic distance from the passions in the poems. It's a familiar battle between perspective and identification, resolved through the passion of the language itself, the "hook and talk of the sea":
After having loved that country like blood burst in the brain,
the leaving of it made light headed in the up and up.
these hands pressed hard on the window of goodbye.
Anecdote, observation and epiphany can lead to nothing more than pretty set-pieces. Hunter however is a careful writer. In lines like "the rustle of your skirts lifted/over the door sill, choirs bursting under my skin", it's that pause at the end of the phrase that readies us for the sheer joy of recognition in that final image. The plain diction (simple nouns, with every verb in place) and the images she builds from it, reveal that this is a storyteller's language: rich, but drawn from simple ingredients.
legend: an inscription or title on an object (as a coin)
The language in Andrew Steinmetz's debut collection, Histories, is the shorthand 'legend' of case notes. "Death begins with small talk," he writes, and in the persona of a doctor on rounds, he uses clipped jargon and brief, absurdly short lines to hold him, and us, at arm's length from the misery around him.
The title sequence, "Histories", has a sardonic sense of humour¨that familiar nervous laugh in the face of suffering. Yet the poems betray the sympathies (however well-managed) of the clinician: "grandmother /of six / inoperable /children /inconsolable." While these sketches skim lightly over their subjects' circumstances, they still manage to find a simple human identification and compassion: orderly slips in with
shaved and bathed
he is professional between the legs
candid with the armpits
gentle with the hockey scores
That same sardonic voice turns on itself in the middle section of Histories, where Steinmetz tells family tales, addresses the newly-born and the lately-dead, offers up some brief political observations, and is always aware of just how fragile people are in the face of either their mortality or their dignity. He notes of his newborn daughter: "6:59 /meconium /first poo /of Latin origin / intestines /work passing /gas /just like her dad."
The pieces in Histories reveal only the immediate details of the people being written about. The real depth is in the character of the various voices of the poems¨in the detachment of a doctor, for example, or the irritation of a father wakened late at night by his infant son ("Don't fight me you should have learned /to do your nights twelve months ago /according to a book I read /you're using me /and we both know it"). Wisecracking, fairly honest, likeable, with a self-deprecating attitude, it is the voice of an observer who doesn't flinch from what he sees. This is not rich nor leisurely writing, but surgical, the kind that cuts to the bone. The poems aren't patterned with repeated sounds, rhythms, or highly-charged imagery. But in its restless wit, sharp observation, and compassion, Histories is immediately engaging and rewarding.
legend: an explanatory list of symbols in a map or chart
Ottawa writer Stephen Brockwell's Cometology looks for meaning not in ancestry or in the hurried moment, but in plain human action set against the larger designs of the physical, mathematical world. Opening with two poems, mirror images of each other separated only by the fiction of time, Cometology begins to unravel that time using sightings of celestial events, the unreality of dreams, and the surge of the sea as markers.
King Wu marches on Zhou,
faces east. After a flood
Gongtou falls. A comet appears;
the dagger's handle
points to the people of Yin.
Pi Li, six years old,
catches a yellow butterfly
the size of her hands,
carries its wing-dust
all day in her palms.
("CA. 1000 B.C.")
Markers, disruptions of pattern, are carried through the various sections of the book. This is a highly-structured collection, depending for its best effects on the ways the poems intersect with each other.
The delight in Cometology is in the way its motifs don't precisely mirror each other but, like the periodic swing of comets or the tides of the sea, return to points in their cycles slightly changed, bolder, stronger. "Tungsten is a filament of wire / not the source of light/ beside the bed in the child's room" in "Recent Discoveries" is echoed later in another poem as "Candle wax is secretion from the bee /not the source of the wavering /light above the astrologer's desk" in "Classical Observations" and finally as "Flint is a black stone /not the source of the fire / beneath the roasting hare" in "Early Beliefs". With each iteration, we move further back in time, and farther along in the attempt to find something in the 'absolute' that we can recognize.
Cometology is the riskiest of the three books, taking chances with poems that include mathematical formulas, that present dream images, and (in a long piece about an incident at the public library) even invite us to physically write in what we see. Its search for meaning points away from self-reflective meditation and into a larger world of rigorous, controlled observation: "These are the tools of your study: /water clock /sundial /eye." Through its recurring patterns of form and language, it leads us to that moment when the constellation of imagery, diction, and perspective is in sharp focus and becomes the surprise you always hoped was there. ˛
Steven Laird is poetry editor for Lichen Literary Journal in Whitby, Ontario