The inventor of Champagne apparently said, "Come quickly¨I am tasting stars." Clearly we are at our most expressive in everyday language when we stumble across a fresh way to say something. Poets are among those people who value and constantly search for new ways, and good poet attempt to communicate more through less. The Yukon poet Erling Friis-Baastad demonstrates in his book The Exile House that he is one of those talented poets who can begin a poem with a couple of lines as concise and effective as "We are the people / In God's belly." Other poems begin in a more intriguing manner, such as "Dawn, and your god had overreached / again," or "A recent study has revealed / elderly men are dying alone / in shacks in the forest."
As a skilled poet, Friis-Baastad is also selective about subject matter and gives us poems with ideas that would be more difficult to clarify elsewhere, or at the very least would require extra packaging in a novel or essay. Poetry can slip around certain awkward corners more easily, to light torches in corners that might not otherwise be reached, and he wisely avoids the topics that could just as easily transform the material into something other than a poem.
Friis-Baastad is obviously a dedicated poet, and while this means he knows all the advantages of poetry, it also means he sometimes falls into a different trap. Some poems mention poetry while others are dedicated to (or are about) poets. Work dedicated to old poet friends is somewhat understandable, but I find they are usually a weak link in a poetry collection, and "Whenever I see you Now, You're Laughing", dedicated to Patrick Lane is no exception. These kinds of nostalgic greetings bottled in poems also run the risk of excluding the reader. References to poetry even sneak into two titles, "The Poet Attempts a Novel" and "The Poet Divides His Time". These are excellent poems, but they don't have much to do with writing poetry and we don't need to be reminded Friis-Baastad is a poet. In short, the reader should be able to see through the poetry, not see poetry. While it is no surprise that poems about poets would mention their work, references to poetry surfacing elsewhere become unnecessarily distracting.
I did find a certain lack of clarity in a few of these poems. Friis-Baastad is wonderful when all his images are threaded neatly together, but sometimes the images are fired off and left behind too disconnected, lacking sufficient explanation. He is at his best when not trying to juggle too much at once. I read "The Ash Land" a handful of times, but was still left trying to puzzle out the ending, "Meanwhile, / crouched on a cliff / above my childhood village, / an ugly troll / blinded with tears / will be trapped / by sunrise." Poetry is minimalism in the sense that it should ignore extraneous words, but ignore a few too many and the poet crosses a fine line and creates a poem with emotional tone but no clear message. This happened too infrequently to really detract from the collection overall, as there are many rewarding moments here. When Friis-Baastad succeeds, he succeeds brilliantly. The poem "Stranded" begins, "Memory causes the compass of the heart / to spin in all creatures / who choose to forsake water / for dry land." The final lines of this poem, about how we are all "laughable miracles," remind me that good poetry is memorable but also includes us all instead of simply being self-indulgent. Other poems such as "On Vilano Bridge" work extremely well as portraits of a moment:
Porpoises are rolling in Matanzas Bay.
Along the bridge Sunday crowds
sullenly jostle for room
to fish. I am too poor
to presume to wave at the huge
blue sail boats passing by.
I wish I hadn't lost everything.
An intense young woman on a bicycle
issues me a significant "good morning."
I think she is testing to see
if I'm just another one ű
too wrapped up in my own small thoughts.
"Howdy" I say, but she
is already a hundred yards away
and has me pegged.
This is the work of a poet who rarely misses, work that can be read for the joy of the language and yet for the concentrated meaning as well. "He gets so he understands / the needs of rocks,/ gets so he can sing / like a stone." Considering some of the huge subjects he approaches in his poetry, it begins to feel like nitpicking to say that he sometimes doesn't succeed. It is an impressive accomplishment that his poems about large, serious topics are a pleasure to read, not because he is clever but because he is skilled and talented. Friis-Baastad is a writer helping to hold one of those few ropes that keep us from floating off (at an important time, though perhaps there are no unimportant times) into a world where novelty is more important than meaning or communication. ˛
Alex Boyd has samples of poems, fiction and essays at www.alexboyd.com.