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The Magic of Happenstance
by Eric Ormsby

Roo Borson's poetry situates itself in the elusive penumbra between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Her poems often speak in the voice of daydream; thus, in Water Memory, her ninth collection, she declares:

I would like to lie down on a leaf of banana
under a blue sky on a summer day,
and never die.
("Life among Flowers")

A characteristic Borson poem is at once bright but diffuse. The voice, oddly subliminal, comes from that fleeting sphere where reverie just breaks the surface before vanishing. Perhaps Roo Borson's most engaging quality as a poet is this attention, this fidelity, to her own innermost voice. But this tendency, however admirable in itself, does not always serve her well, for she seldom moves beyond the transcription of such interior promptings towards some larger and more coherent form that would be meaningful to the rest of us.
A scrupulous adherence to the wayward currents of consciousness has characterized all her work from the beginning, in 1977, when Landfall, her first collection, appeared. But for all its flitting, often charming, sometimes dazzling, manner, Roo Borson's work exhibits an uncommon stasis. The shape and scope of her poems hardly differ, in this new collection, from those of her earliest works. This has to do, in my view, with two salient features of her writing: first, its almost exclusive dependence upon an evanescent present; and second, its adherence to an aesthetic of happenstance. The two are correlated.
Roo Borson is pre-eminently a poet of the present moment, or even of the present instant. In her poems, the time is invariably now. When she does deal with memory, it has a perfunctory feel; even childhood has significance only in connection with her immediate awareness. This is why her poetry, from the beginning, has lacked any tragic resonance; her griefs seem tangential. She is a poet who wishes to seize the happiness of the instant in its flight. She delights in the fleetingness of time. Unlike Faust, she would not be tempted to say, "Stay, O moment, thou art so fair!" Rather, the effervescence of time intoxicates her. I do not say this to disparage her. No subjects are more difficult to capture in writing than the purely transient. Perhaps no topic is truly stranger than happiness, or harder to convey in credible words.
Because Roo Borson places such a premium on the divagations of her inner voice, she is peculiarly given over to randomness. Part of the initial charm of much of her work in fact relies upon the unexpectedness of juxtaposition that occurs in nearly every poem. There is a wilful trust in the données of each successive moment which is refreshing and even endearing, but which quickly proves distracting in poem after poem. This emphasis has led her in the past into deliberately clashing metaphors, as though to assert the rights of simultaneity in the teeth of logic:

And so the moon creeps up over the hillside
in a surprise attack, running in rivulets
down the sides of buildings, smothering the shadows
in a rash of white violets.

This from her poem "The Window" in the 1984 collection The Whole Night, Coming Down-a not untypical example. The random collision of such disparate effects is part of her rhetorical strategy. In her new book she goes even farther in mixing her metaphors:

is non-representational, like a Persian border,
or the plate of biscuits and cream gravy
that keeps recurring in the middle of the country, much
as God
appears blazing in domes and crosses in the Middle
("From the Night Interstate")

There is, we might infer, something holy, even sacrosanct, in the given, in what consciousness proffers unbidden to our attention. Poem after poem in this collection seems to confirm this inference:

I know I'm happy when I start humming in the morning,
holding my orange juice like the lethal weapon
an Aunt once said it was so I should
walk, not run, upstairs with it, or I'd be sorry.
As for me, I'm happy just to not be living in New York.
("Private Happiness")

This chirpy twittering, which mars so much of her work, often sinks into sheer garrulity:

After we'd made it through the aerobics section and the endurance section and the stretches, our teacher reminded us that today was relaxation day, she switched off the lights and we lay down against the pitch-dark of our closed eyes, in free-fall really, but kept afloat in this world by the special exercise floor which had cost the county taxpayers dearly (it was worth it of course, being no mere floor but a raft of salvation) and our teacher started the tape.
("Starting the Tape")

This fault is most painfully apparent in the many prose poems in the collection, a genre that Borson began including in her books in her 1984 collection, The Whole Night, Coming Home. Quite apart from what one may think of this hybrid genre, it is not a form at which Roo Borson excels, and one wonders why she persists at it. This is not to say that all the prose poems in Water Memory fail. In fact, two of the stronger pieces in the book are prose poems: "Mathematics" and "Love". In these, some inherent logic in the syntax of prose lends shape and symmetry to her words:

Others have been here before you. This cave is older than human thought. All conundra pre-exist, resolvable only by awe. Awe comes afterwards. Colourless, infinitely faceted, more mesmerizing than amethyst, incalculably more valuable than diamond-for these walls and chambers can never be mined, though the imitations are endless.

It is when the prose poem encourages Borson's chatty side-unfortunately, a large side-that she indulges in strings of glib non sequiturs (which are, somehow, more bearable in verse than in prose).
On the other hand, when she does concentrate, she is capable of powerful effects:

Those two
mites I snuffed with my thumb
a moment ago
along the page
(age-spotted, velvet-edged)
of the Home
Book of Italian Cooking, running
was it, or for all I know
just taking their time
between Fresh Tomato Sauce and
Plain Tomato Sauce
skirting the crossed
rubber bands that have held
the book together these
thirty-odd years
Mine! Mine! I felt,
and crushed them,
my childhood, what
are you doing

This little poem, which I quote in its entirety, has force and wit. It engages our attention, does not ramble or indulge in gauzy soliloquies, as so many of the other poems do; we feel the whole meaning of home in the lovingly evoked cookbook, and we share the sense of intrusion that the speaker feels before the two mites, as of a profanation of something dear. This is a poem-one of too few in Water Memory-that creates its own form and so succeeds.
All too often, Borson's attention flits and springs from one image to the next. All too often, we feel that one line succeeds another, not because it must, but simply because it occurred to the poet in that way. At such moments we wish the poet would resist her own impulses more, would oppose form and pattern to happenstance, would not merely succumb to the inconsequential pulses of her own indiscriminate inspiration, but would shape and order a poem. Instead, it is as though her insistent private voice vampirized her will, leaving behind only these delicate but bloodless husks.
Happily, however, from time to time, some object or creature fixes her attention and the resulting poems are lovely. This occurred most conspicuously in her 1989 collection entitled Intent, or the Weight of the World, and it seemed to signal a possible new direction away from sugary solipsism into some more objectively pleasing realm. In that book, poems such as "Rubber Boots" or "Chitons" or the wonderful "Moon" suggested what Roo Borson might be capable of, when freed from self-absorption by some redeeming outside object:

In the least probable places you appear,
everywhere at home,
everywhere equal,
Bright nude, round and full as a Reubens [sic],
I've seen you recline even as you were borne up.

And she concludes, quite beautifully:

Why is it that you look so far away
when only hours ago you
burst into our rooms and silences-
and we felt our humanity,
the conspiracy of our being.
("Moon", from Intent, or the Weight of the World)

Even the hilarious misprint (I hope that is what it is!) does not spoil this poem but rather enhances it. In a good Roo Borson poem, we feel, thanks to the magic of happenstance, the moon might well be an opulent nude in a painting by Rubens as well as a sumptuous pastrami, melted cheese, and sauerkraut sandwich.
Water Memory has several striking poems which also celebrate "the conspiracy of our being". In the moving "Coast Road", one of the best poems in the book, she muses on her own future death (which she characteristically transposes to the present):

Just say on my behalf "the present,"
and then look at your shoes. I'll be
among the female horsetails,
frowzy and Medusal in a roadside ditch,
waiting for the male, and spring.
Look for me.

The affectionate allusion to Walt Whitman ("If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles" in "Song of Myself") strengthens the poem and gives it unexpected depth. Another successful poem in the present collection is "To the Grey Squirrel" where her concentration on a being outside herself brings a new musicality into her verse:

O cats of rectitude,
scavengers of the great All,
limb-rats, monkeys
of the northern forests, you
who steal chocolate from my sill
and hunker, impenetrable, on delicate haunches,
to prise it from its wrapper-
what is all my praise of you
compared to a nut?

In such a line as "and hunker, impenetrable, on delicate haunches," the poet's language has collided with the impenetrable surface of a world and has rebounded with new resilience and vividness; the language has taken on a knobby, tactile cadence that interests the mouth and the ear. Other poems in Water Memory that achieve this level are, in my opinion, "Beet Salad", "Snake", "Water Memory" (the title poem), "Home", and "Coast Road", and such love lyrics as "Whuff", "Spain", and "You Leave the City..." and perhaps also "Horsemint".
"Water Memory", appropriately enough, is about memorylessness, for "Water does not remember...." In the delicately Taoist close to the title-poem, Borson writes

Be water,
find a lower place, go there.

The quiescence that this injunction recommends may be admirable from a religious or a mystical viewpoint but it has its drawbacks as an aesthetic. Poetry does demand the alert receptivity-the "negative capability" of a Keats-that Roo Borson cultivates, but it also requires a corresponding intervention of the shaping will. The true, and recurrent, subject of this collection is, all too pervasively, the poet's own voice, and only when some powerful emissary from the world outside intervenes-a squirrel, the awareness of death, those mites in the cookbook!-is the poet prompted towards form.
Happenstance does have its magic, but it is an incomplete enchantment. Only form can finally satisfy "the conspiracy of our being", but for this, craft and discipline, as well as attention, are required. "In poetry," wrote the great Italian poet Eugenio Montale in one of his last books, "what counts is not content, but Form." In perhaps a dozen of the poems in this overly long collection, Roo Borson shows what she can do when her attentiveness allies itself with form.

Eric Ormsby is a poet living in Montreal.


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