A Day's Grace: Poems 1997-2002

by Robyn Sarah
ISBN: 0889842337

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A Review of: A Day∆s Grace
by Richard Carter

Anyone who reads regularly, as I do, the blurbs printed on the back of Canadian poetry books will be familiar with the phrase (or, should I say, praise?) "attention to detail." If you've taken poetry writing workshops or studied 20th Century English literature you probably know-and know instinctively-that for writers this accolade is a sought-after bestowal of initiation, as well as a necessary ready-made addition to the reviewer's toolkit. Still, it is worth considering why "attention to detail" matters. When Ezra Pound in the dawning years of the 20th Century instructed poets to "go in fear of abstractions" he was struggling in his own work against verbose 19th Century poems that revelled in lush description and sweeping statements, but failed to portray a world of increasing uncertainty. In short, at a time when it seems false to declare truths, you have to make do with presenting details and hoping readers will decipher something truthful for themselves.
For Robyn Sarah, a Montreal poet, this approach is characteristic. She began publishing poetry books in the late 1970s and has gained a reputation as a poet attentive to the myriad details of a world many know but few can express. Past reviewers of her work, such as Eric Ormsby and D.G. Jones, have been struck, not just by her taxonomic impulse, but equally by her capacity for wonder. Jones, reviewing her 1992 book The Touchstone: Poems New & Selected, praised her "documentary eye and ear, her delight in catalogue, [and] her sense of the gravity of the ephemeral and the eternity of the quotidian," while Ormsby, writing of her 1998 collection Questions about the Stars, remarked that Sarah has "an uncanny gift for arresting, as though to savour, the instant." The collection under review, A Day's Grace is Sarah's seventh and latest collection. Many of the poems deal with domesticity, not just the domesticity of neighbourhoods, roses, mittens and chairs, but also the basic human need to make a home by domesticating the unknown. Taming the unknown, of course, means surmounting fear-fear of the future and of death. Several poems in the book make such triumph look easy: beauty shunts attention from gloom and jogs it forward. "Sublimity," Samuel Johnson once wrote, "is produced by aggregation, and littleness by dispersion." Most poems in A Day's Grace are attentive-and vigorous-battles against dispersion, a battle Sarah implies in "A Solstice Rose", propping up a dying rose artificially with "a brace of metal" to give its wilting life "a day's grace."
Here is an example of her attention to things, the first three stanzas from "Change":

The maple in first blush,
like an apple on the edge
of reddening-so it begins;

Later, something pulls
the leaves down, sky floods
the forks of trees.

Spendthrift, the little linden
looses the last of its gold,
clinkless coins for the wind
to hoard in heaps;

Beginning with an autumn maple, Sarah lists an "apple", "leaves", "sky", "forks of trees", a "linden", "clinkless coins" and "heaps". Yet all these things relate; the reddening leaf to apples, and ripeness leading to drifting leaves through the "forks of trees" until only a linden is left, releasing its "clinkless coins" to be hoarded "in heaps." Each stanza seems isolated, punctuated with a semicolon or period. There seems to be no order-the world is dilapidating, leaves scattering and summer dispersing. But the three formal stanzas, fixed as branches, provide a shape that the seasonal scythe mows through, emphasizing the crazed "flooding" and "loosening" of leaves yet remaining a stable and tranquil presence on the page. The leaves, finally, are "hoarded", rather than scattered to oblivion. The particulars form an aggregated whole.
Long before Modernists began doubting human goodness, critics had praised the poet's love of ordinary things. "To a poet nothing can be useless," Johnson wrote in the 18th Century, adding that "[whatever] is beautiful, and whatever is dreadful, must be familiar to his imagination: he must be conversant with all that is awfully vast or elegantly little. The plants of the garden, the animals of the wood, the minerals of the earth, and meteors of the sky, must all concur to store his mind with inexhaustible variety." What with all these sensations, thoughts and images flitting through a poet's brain, it's no wonder Johnson figured they'd prove useful for a poem. But tuning in to the world can have a moral value too. The best art, Iris Murdoch wrote,

"is impersonal' because it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us. . . This exercise of detachment is difficult and valuable whether the thing contemplated is a human being or the root of a tree or the vibration of a colour or a sound. Unsentimental contemplation of nature exhibits the same quality of detachment: selfish concerns vanish, nothing exists except the things which are seen."

This unselfconscious awareness of a presence outside yourself, an awareness so intense it grips your guts, need not be limited to concrete particulars. In contrast to the sensual solidity of "Change", this excerpt from "Old Tune" ventures into abstraction:

Beat time,
beat time to the music while you can,
for no one can beat time forever.
No, in the end no one beats time.
Time beats us all,
a cold conductor.

Nothing there is that is not
by time's iron touched,
by time's cold iron
tempered in its turn.
Not any man escapes this brush.
Time's iron hold, time's icy burn. . .

I admire both the lively spondee in the first line and the combined meanings of drumming musically and achieving victory over void. Gaining dactylic enthusiasm, the measure waltzes to four stresses, smugly chanting "beat time" while warning that this frolic cannot last, since in the end "no one beats time"; time becomes the subject and "beats us."
But I prize the second stanza more. Sarah seems to have forgotten herself entirely-all she sees is death with a punishing clarity. Notice the unusual phrasing in the first line. Rather than putting the object after the verb like you normally would in conversation (there is nothing), she alters the order, allowing an uncanny feeling to creep into the lines reinforced by the double negative (nothing . . . not), the formality (is not) and the passive voice in the second and third lines. Right away, readers confront a presence in the lines "Nothing there is," but this presence is entirely obscure, the reader cannot picture it, and it is this very frustration that gives these lines credibility. "Time's iron" will touch something living and kill it, but who, what, how or when are mysteries. Launching assertively forward, the first line only finds itself reeled in-twice-and pinned by the passive voice ("time's iron"). The repetition of words and sounds spurs a feeling of harsh hammering, along with the rough-but aurally pleasing-din of hard syllables, assonance and alliteration. The latter, nudging the ear at intervals as if reminding you of something, leads to a statement so inevitable that it seems no more forced than a lazy wind: "Not any man escapes this brush/Time's iron hold, time's icy burn." Yet despite the melancholic theme, the feeling that stays with me after reading this poem is not, in fact, despair, but exultation. This stanza is incredibly vivacious and probably the best-but not the only-example in this new book of delight trumping death, and vigour resignation. The lines focus intensely, not so much on images or small syntactic details, but on the overarching subject that unites them.
Finding the right words for an experience, even a terrifying experience, is a joyous triumph over the passive stupidity of matter. On its own, a particular object-a tree, a slipper or a shaft of sunlight-means nothing. Add scientific observation and an object gains through human intervention a singular geometrical or chemical consistency, but only in moments of wonder does an object link with other objects, people, sensations or thoughts to form a union so impulsive that it prompts expression.
There are many real gems in this new collection, "Day Visit" (an astonishing sonnet, previously published in Books in Canada), "Old Tune", "Fishless" and "Ponte Vedra" among them. I'm less keen, however, on a few others. "Churlish Countdown" and "A Vision of the Future", for example, strike me as stifled: the poetry cannot get out because Sarah's opinions (about the millennium in the first case and the Second Gulf War in the other) leave her mood and imagination only a small breathing space in which to explore her well-stocked larder of images and sensations. Another poem, "Cipher", has a different problem. The title, meaning a coded message, is apt, for the poem lists several unrelated events which Sarah calls random "grains in the day's sieve." The message, in the end, is that "Nothing adds up./The signs are what they are." But here's my beef. While it is natural to perceive a random day's events as simply "what they are", what I want from a poem-and find in this book-is the sprightly sudden gathering of these grains so that they feed a feeling larger than themselves.

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