by John Steffler
ISBN: 1550651609

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A Review of: Helix: New and Selected Poems
by Robert Moore

In "Saint Laurence's Tears", the first poem in John Steffler's Helix: New and Selected Poems, the speaker and his sister are remembered lying on their backs on "the August earth of Ontario" looking up into the night sky. From this premise Steffler proceeds to develop a lyrical meditation on time and place as categories of being, on the immanence of death, and on the role played by the past-both private and social history-as the nominal seat of identity. Situating itself at the vanishing point in a complex field of forces, the poem uses the "star-showering night" to mirror the "ocean of loam so many had sailed their houses on." The earth below thus comprises "the shallow constellations" of artifacts like flints, coins and kitchen knives. The poem concludes by focusing in on the "harness" used by "the farm's old owners" which the speaker imagines continuing to "[ride] into the strength it borrowed from." The speaker's personal history, and the history of his relationship to his sister, are incidental, no more material than the ownership of the knives and coins that once lay upon, rather than in, the earth. With its parting valorization of the sublime, the poem embodies what Seamus Heaney characterizes as the "redress of poetry," by which he means "the idea of counterweighing, of balancing out the forces, of redress-tilting the scales of reality toward some transcendent equilibrium."
Throughout the three collections from which Helix draws (The Wreckage of Play, The Grey Islands, That Night We Were Ravenous) and in the "New Poems", Steffler demonstrates a singular commitment to making such forms of redress. Consider, for example, this passage from the book's very last poem,"Collecting, Bay of Islands, 1998", from "New Poems":

"Perhaps with what I collect I hope to flesh myself
out, reconstruct my anatomy in a form less human,
less estranged. Or is it characteristic of the creatures
I search for to erode or digest their observers? If so,
I should list my sense of dismemberment as one
of their properties."

John Steffler is a landscape poet. And like Wordsworth, whom he so much resembles (at least on the level of ideation), he's drawn to the "wild secluded scenes" which have the power to impress "Thoughts of a more deep seclusion." The scenes Steffler's poems inhabit are consistently liminal; bare, bleak, unaccommodating, situated at the very limits of the self. People interest him only to the degree that they necessarily figure in the "blind/ conversation of touch" in which rocks participate and to which the human ineluctably inclines.
Rhetorically enacting and re-enacting rituals of absorption and dismemberment, Steffler is the very opposite of a confessionalist. For him a poem is not a forum for revealing so much as displacing the self, as in the book's title poem "Helix" in which the speaker imagines himself "at the railing of time's helix," looking down from a plane on the Jacques Cartier, the locus of a scene from his past. "How does the mind get taken apart/ like this," he wonders, "a trio, a quartet tentatively playing,/ tuning, playing, looser and looser and more true/ as it breaks up over the sea among the clouds."
In the best of his poems, such as "Eclipse Again" or "That Night We Were Ravenous", Steffler arranges his mind's favourite instruments perfectly to suggest the way in which the self, even in the act of its dissolution before the ineffable as manifested in a fundamentally unknowable nature (an eclipse, a moose) is both literally and figuratively grounded.' As in the remarkable extended poem of his second collection, "The Grey Islands", his willfully eremitic speakers discover that "the harder your hungry eyes bite/ into the worldthe more/ you spread your arms to hug it in,/ the less you mind the thought of diving under,/ eyes flooded. gulping dark."
Reviewing "That Night We Were Ravenous", Tim Bowling regretted Steffler's dependence upon the accretion of image at the expense of formal accomplishment: "It is hard to imagine memorizing most of these poems; generally entertaining, they lack the technical force that makes poetry resonate for readers long after they've looked away from the page." Bowling points out a fault in Steffler that the refinements of Helix all but corrects. That is, Helix does what a book of new and selected poems' from an important poet in mid-career should do: glean the essential and most memorable poetry from a body of published work, structure its selections in a sensible package, and wed those selections to a substantial offering of new poems.

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