Running in Prospect Cemetery

by Susan Glickman
ISBN: 155065182X

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A Review of: Running In Prospect Cemetery: New and Selected Poems
by Kevin Higgins

>From the word go Susan Glickman's Running In Prospect Cemetery: New and Selected Poems is a collection which has obviously come from a different Canada entirely. Glickman was born in Montreal, but now lives in Toronto. The book includes twenty-one new poems as well as an extensive selection of poems from four previous collections. Whereas Brent MacLaine's poems are often about solitary figures in a very particular landscape; Glickman's are dominated by the sort of domestic urban drama which could happen almost anywhere, and does. In "The Country Of The Old People"-a poem from her first collection, which was published in 1982-Glickman's take on her ancestors is tinged with cosmopolitan irony rather than regionalist over-seriousness:

When I was a child I was told all the stories again and again,
who was related to whom, and why, and who died and why
but always forgot. Years later
I have no one to tell me the stories.
I remember the ladies' perfumes, lilac carnation and rose, they smelled like sachets.
And I remember arthritic fingers, wedding bands
sunk in the flesh; I'd always imagined
they'd have to cut them off.
They kept trying to decide whose eyes I had,
whose nose, what were my talents. I didn't listen.
Now I want to know, I want to know where I fit in
that long line of descendants from the country of the old.

In one of the new poems she takes a similarly ironic approach to a very different subject, her breasts: "I used to lie on my stomach praying / "please don't grow" but they did, / faster than anyone else's, / sending me back to school hunched, / clutching books between belly and chin." Her poems are also politically engaged in a way that MacLaine's simply aren't. The results of this are occasionally rather mixed. The nine part feminist sequence "Henry Moore's Sheep" is mostly excellent. This is from part II:

Clown-like and tedious, their lumpen assertion
of mere presence.
As we expect.
As in "a bunch of sheep".
As in the mob to which we most certainly do not
belong, being
if not elegant
at least strenuous pursuers of some moral or aesthetic imperative
unattributable to mutton at the mall
or at the polls
or to anything en masse except (perhaps)
hillsides spread with some purposeful flower...

Towards the end of part V, though, Glickman describes Henry Moore's sculptures of women as "bone ladies, ghosts of childbearing past. /Either way oppressed, and oppressive. / Either way, the body / as a terrible sadness." This is fine apart from the line in which she clumsily manages to uses both the word "oppressed" and the word "oppressive". These are words which have been used (and abused) to such an extent in political and journalistic discourse over the past several decades, as to render them almost unusable in poetry; unless the poet is using irony to subversive effect, which in this case Glickman clearly isn't. Similarly, in "Running in Prospect Cemetery"-a powerful thirteen-page meditation by the narrator on the then recent death of a friend and her own wish to have a child-there are a couple of sudden outbursts of philosophical and political triteness. In the third line she announces: "I am overcome by the sheer arbitrariness of my existence", while six pages later she tells us (as if we hadn't already heard it put in similar terms many times before) that humanity is "an over-efficient parasite which / in seeking to survive is killing the planet."
If Susan Glickman has a noticeable weakness as poet, it is that she is sometimes insufficiently aware of the corrosive effect the sheer bankruptcy of contemporary political discourse has had on language, and so on our ability to write successful political poems. Whatever else, a politically engaged poet needs to avoid uncritically using the language of contemporary politics, even liberal progressive politics (as Glickman does here) because, in the era of spin and PC, to use the everyday language of politics is to forever skim the surface and be shallow rather than in any sense profound.
However, this is perhaps to dwell a little too long on the negative. In another of her new poems "Between God And Evil", Glickman seems to show a greater understanding of the politics of words. Her daughter, Rachel, takes a pencil to the Saturday paper:

and methodically circles all the words she

to, the, and, in
look, little, one,
me, you, or,
love, lost and garden.

She skips over Nazis and Hildegard of Bingen;
ignores destiny
and hallucinations; turns her pyjama-clad back
on fundamentalism. And maybe she's right.
None of those words have brought you and me
any closer
to love, or to the little one lost
in the garden.

Indeed, as one reads the almost 140 pages of poetry this collection has to offer, it becomes clear that Susan Glickman is a poet of astonishing versatility and skill. She is able to carry off the long-poem and the sequence in a way that few contemporary poets can. Her best poems are infused with an intelligent irony, which makes them instantly likeable, but not at all throw-away or glib. And if the new poems included here are any sort of guide, she still seems to be growing as a poet, at a stage in her career when many would be content to rest on their reputations. If pushed to a difficult choice, my pick of the book would be "Poem About Your Laugh", from her 1989 collection Henry Moore's Sheep And Other Poems, which ends with the beautifully original lines: "And when you laugh, old dogs limp / to new patches of sunlight / which they bury for later, knowing something / about need."

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