Island of the Blessed: the Secrets of Egypt's Everlasting Oasis

by Harry Thurston
ISBN: 0385259697

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A Review of: Island of the Blessed
by Susan Briscoe

Hilary Clark's The Dwellings of Weather is her third collection, and it demonstrates a self-consciousness of craft that is sometimes inflated to self-reflexive angst: "I am breaking the lines / with terrible care," she tells us. About half the pieces here, however, are prose poems that don't have line breaks at all, and with just a few exceptions, the other half are very loosely constructed poems with lots of spaces and indentations and dashes. Yet the content of the two forms is so similar that the choice between them seems arbitrary, a varying device to keep poet and reader awake- perhaps necessary in a collection whose main subject is not so much dwellings or weather but the mental space at the edge of sleep. In fact, so many of these poems refer to sleep or dreams, often in association with reading or writing, that one can't help fearing that Clark often nods off while working. While she does develop the trope of the dwelling promised by the title, her constructs also fatally mimic the frail architecture of dreams, everything disappearing as soon as it is suggested: "I dream of rooms so empty / they vanish-"
The dashes, used even to end poems, are the most direct of the slant allusions to Emily Dickinson, yet many of these poems are more rewarding when read as attempts (not that we needed more) to re-imagine Dickinson's perceptual field (Clark wisely makes no effort to replicate the complex workings of Dickinson's mind):

Morning wears a white robe- apple-blossoms, ecstasies
of bees and robins, sleeping cats-
it's warm, here are messages
tucked in the earth
he is not here
not here, laugh the magpies

here, echo the crows
as we wake in the rags
of our vision.

While the Dickinson material recalls Atwood's Journals of Susanna Moodie and Lorna Crozier's A Saving Grace in its affective approach, some stanzas do take up Dickinson's own metaphors, as in this:

A poem is a shelter,
provisional- a little wobbly-

a house whose rooms have no walls,
whose windows are prairie sloughs
whose ceilings stream
with the clouds.

There are many vivid moments in these poems: "Morning leans in an open door" and "Tawny beads, thread-snapped- / the hours rattle in a bag." But cumulatively the poems come to feel as formless as shadows of clouds drifting across the page, and the weather doesn't really seem to change much. Though the collection is very effective in its expression of a dreamy, associative sensibility, the ephemeral quality eventually overwhelms and prevents the reader from fully engaging-unless, perhaps, in a hammock on a warm and lazy summer afternoon

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