The Ishtar Gate: Selected and New Poems

by Diana Brebner/ed by Stephanie Bolster
192 pages,
ISBN: 0773528350

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A Gate for Fugitive Gods
by Richard Carter

"We are always in the middle of life, looking forwards and backwards; the only movement we can make to defy physics and history is the journey of the spirit."
-Diana Brebner
"Spiritual" is one of those adjectives that immediately provokes suspicion. Its meaning is too vague, its double-vowel suffix too earnest, and its devotional implications too ridiculous for down-to-earth folks who call a spade a spade. Possibly for this reason, Diana Brebner's poems may never be widely read. Never titillating, rarely humorous, and peppered with references to ancient goddesses and angels, her work requires patience. She died in 2001, leaving behind three poetry books and a reputation for poems striking for their understated intensity and originality, and irksome for their aloofness and forced gravity. Late last year, McGill-Queen's published The Ishtar Gate, edited by her friend and fellow poet Stephanie Bolster. The book consists of work selected from her earlier books along with new uncollected poems; Bolster, as well, contributes a thoughtful introduction.
Ever since Brebner began publishing in 1990, critics have responded to her poems with kudos and peeves. Some have praised her formal elegance, seriousness, and imaginative knack for unusual associations; others have scorned her abstraction, artificiality and impersonal austerity; and the rest have both praised and scorned one or more of these things. Barbara Carey, for instance, says Brebner's poems have a "solemn, somewhat processional feeling" and that, although their emotion is "kept rigorously under wraps," they can "also be dazzling, in an austere way." Charlene Diehl-Jones praises Brebner's imagination and admires the poetry's "unexpected, sudden and lively" transformations. For Carmine Starnino, Brebner's poetry "in its uncompromising suspicion of feeling, regularly outwits itself into artificiality." And Ann Diamond grouses that Brebner's poems often seem "gripped by a rigid affectation." The chief peeve in all this seems to be Brebner's apparent unwillingness to let her emotional hair down. More on that later.
To put the importance of Brebner's work into context, it's worth mentioning a quality her poems almost entirely lack. Ken Babstock, reviewing Tim Bowling a few years ago, praised Bowling's "sensory acuity". The scent of wet grass, the sound of wind moving snow, the sunny warmth of a blue June day-the physical presence of these can be found in Bowling's work. Such things were largely lost on Brebner's poetic imagination. Bowling enlivens an outer world, Brebner exposes an inner one. Listen to "What Is Homeless In Me, And Sightless" from her first collection, Radiant Life Forms:

What is homeless in me, and sightless, not
without love, but blind to your world? If I

insist on love, or sight, something not brought
by insisting, who will still cherish my

eyes, kiss them with tenderness, with darkness?
All of those places within me, somewhat

lonely, and foreign, where I am homeless,
still remain to be seen. The terror that

fills me is one dark place. The fear of sight
is another. I would like to believe

love is blind; blindness is something to fight
for, to believe in. Dear man, when I leave

my eyes open, I see nothing, in this
world we call real, but you: you and darkness.

At first, the voice sounds lost. Even in the first couplet, the reader winces at a chain of negations (homeless, sightless, not, without) that, locked in a comma-pocked rhythm, fetters the speaker's vigour. The title and the first line hint that "what is homeless in me" is going to be a noun clause, a thing with its own place in the world and ability to act with noun-verb-object conviction. But no. Instead of stating, the words question. The syntactic speed bumps-caused by what Stephanie Bolster has called Brebner's "dramatic caesura"-cool the reader's hurry, urging closer attention to normally-dull words to hear their aural and semantic union. Sight, blindness, darkness and love, for instance, gain fresh meaning in the poem. Why fear sight? Why is blindness something to fight for? How can a lover kiss "with darkness"? Brebner guides readers through darkness-darkness in the sense of uncertainty: there's little in the poem (except "eyes" and "man") that offers any sensory carrot, but immersed in abstraction, one adapts. Deprived of sight, one can focus on listening, and what I hear in this poem is the patient, relentless murmuring of sentences. Sure, the speaker is uncertain. But after the initial question, nouns enact verbs, verbs find objects, and chaos and distress at the outset give way to the orderly confidence of a sonnet, punctuated by the reader's gradual awareness of a rhyme scheme appearing like stars at dusk.
But why would a poet treat sensory attachment with such suspicion? I don't know whether Brebner was a fan of Martin Heidegger, but the philosopher's thoughts provide a reflective backdrop in which to appreciate Brebner's abstract approach. Heidegger once wrote that the planet had become raw material for technology and industry-something very different from its original meaning as the overarching source of existence and an object of reverence. This change, from altar to object, was bad news for human nature. Our original purpose as humans, he suggested, was to live, build and create in honour of this mysterious source; our contemporary purpose, by contrast, had shunned this subtle mystery in favour of the definite comforts that come from heating oil, mining iron and felling trees. One of Heidegger's key hopes, however, was the ability of language to shape perception. Get poets to assist readers in encountering Nature's mystery, and you may shift attitudes and re-kindle our original purpose. "In the age of the world's night," Heidegger wrote in the 1920s, poets must experience and endure our empty existence, and "attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods."
Now Heidegger, in fact, favoured concreteness; to him, enduring "the abyss" meant following "the arduous path of appearance." But what interests me about Heidegger is less this approach than his elucidation of the spiritual problem that provoked it. Bolster comments that Brebner's "language, when it is concrete at all, tends to the general rather than the specific." Did Brebner choose this tendency consciously? I don't know, but it makes sense that if the outer world lacks authenticity you try attuning to an inner one. Some poets, quite understandably, might say that distrusting sensory perception is no reason for dismissing it, and perception, by definition, reshapes the sensory reality it feeds on and sounds deep leagues beneath the surface. Maybe so. Yet it's no argument against abstraction. Re-reading the first few lines of Brebner's poem, I find it tough to ignore how the hesitation they express knots into a muscular conviction that is heightened by the absence of a tangible world. Where concreteness would relieve tension, abstraction intensifies it, driving a poem of compact power and brilliance. "The tenser [a poem] is," Brebner once said, "the better it is." This poem, like most of her work, bristles: as its steady momentum creeps from stanza to stanza, the stone-like caesurae rough-house the current, so you feel satisfaction arriving at every couplet.
At some point, you do have to ask whether reading Diana Brebner is any fun. Admirers of her work must admit that this last poem isn't fun at all. It is, instead, profound, and in the rare moments when I encounter profundity I tend not to mind being gypped of a little amusement. But profundity isn't something Brebner always achieves. Sometimes one gets the feeling reading her poems that life is terribly, terribly serious; that it demands jaw-clenched sincerity and intensity; and that delight in something as simple as a smell, a smile, or a sparrow lacks importance. Whereas her more successful poems demonstrate an attentive patience, her weaker work tends to abandon the joy of whimsy for a ready-made mood, dipped in the austere polish of its own significance. The trouble with this polish is not austerity itself; it's that her gravity just doesn't always convince. I don't mean I doubt her sincerity; I just mean she sometimes fails to create an orchestra of sound and sense fine-tuned and united enough to gain its own life apart from her conscious intentions. To work, in other words, Brebner's beard-stroking tone must seem real, a fact of nature rather than a pundit's perspective. "Poison dart frogs" from her second collection, Flora & Fauna, is a fair example of this kind of austerity. Here is a sample from part 3:

Small dancing frog, poisonous only when
afraid and provoked, do you dream of

a factory, molds and dye? Can you believe
you were once mistress of your own

green world? Fragile. Fierce. Hidden.
Brilliant. Dancer & Singer. Little Mother.

Brebner has hoicked the frog from its natural habitat and caged it in her environmental conscience. No doubt this is a conscience worth nurturing, but a frog has to be free to do what it likes-zap a bug here, splosh in water there, or simply scatter with a rustle among the rushes-and intuition in poetry needs the same free play. She describes the frog, all right: it's "poisonous only when/afraid and provoked" and is fragile, fierce, a little mother, etc. Yet to praise a natural marvel convincingly, you've got to coax the feeling of its independence, and Brebner sometimes has trouble generating this feeling when her attention shifts from her inner, figurative world to an outer, more literal one.
The Ishtar Gate was one of eight entrances to the ancient city of Babylon. Unearthed by archaeologists in the last century, it now looms in a Berlin museum, and to Brebner, the gate is her "personal symbol for the merging of ancient and modern culture, the old goddess-centred religions and the scholarly, rational West." Perhaps this merging is what she hoped her poems would be-an intermeshing of modern Western life with ancient ideas. If at times her poems sound phony, dreary, or simply dull, it is worth recalling that Milton-a poet renowned for his impersonal austerity-could write some eye-drooping stuff, as well as penning a blank verse marvel that confounds the ear with grandeur. Many of Brebner's new poems contain a stirring amalgam of passion and reserve that grips your guts when you read it. Take "Concern for My Soul", for instance:

My only concern is for my soul.
Not the dogmatic bird caged
in the heart, nor the big soul
admired because it includes you
in its embrace. This, my soul,

is private matter, which you may
neither access nor own. Whatever
possesses you, it is not my soul. It
has enough to do being mine
(not that I own it, or claim to). It

broods like a mother and consults
with conscience. Daily, they tell me
I am their difficult daughter. Thus
am I loved and misunderstood
in equal portions. No, I cannot be

concerned with your soul, though
your struggles trouble me. Friend:
Seek out the honey nectar of
affection. Let things like love
surround you. Sometimes they are.

Brebner's best poems seem laborious rather than effortless, awkward rather than graceful. Yet while the ungainliness ought to be called a flaw (well, it is a flaw) it is also a major virtue of her work. This poem, for instance, seems pedestrian at first-the phrases plain, the stanzas conventional. But owing to Brebner's decision to forego a smooth appearance, the poem directs attention toward what the speaker is saying, not what the poem is doing, and the result is a moving poem heightened by Brebner's characteristic understatement. To say "No, I cannot be//concerned with your soul" is a troubling and difficult admission, as is the reflection that the speaker is "loved and misunderstood/in equal portions." Brebner discloses the very soul she declares is "a private matter" in these tight-fisted, emotional, building-block stanzas. Like in "What is Homeless in Me, and Sightless", Brebner slows the pace. Unlike that poem, however, the slow-motion happens not because of unexpected caesurae but because of the compact placement of brief sentence upon sentence, which brings a rare lightness of touch and ease to an otherwise intense poem. The blunt candour in the lines-revealing self-contempt as well as pride-convince: they depict a speaker who suffers, and who because she suffers must speak directly. The orderly stanzas contrast with the feeling they contain, and, unlike some of her other poems, the line breaks in this one sharpen the tension. "This, my soul,//is a private matter" catches the reader by surprise, making the soul seem precisely that-more rare and private. This poem seems as sure as an object in nature. It gains, in fact, a "sensual acuity" simply through its unrelenting concentration and confidence in its own necessity. When any poem gains this confidence, the difference between depicting the sight and smell of autumn fields versus the cobwebbed cupboards of the soul is negligible: outer and inner vision are the same.

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