|Wherever That May Be
by Olivia Cole
From washing lines, to high dives from bridges, Out to Dry in Cape Breton is a debut in which Lahey¨personable, emotive and stylistically witty¨makes her home, fearlessly on the line. "Hung out to dry" becomes an emblem as much of vulnerability and abandonment as of fearlessness and the fearfulness that taking risks can entail.
"Consider recklessness/how it breeds in safe places"; the opening sequence, "Woman at Clothes Line" immediately establishes Lahey as a poet whose commitment to chance and risk is as much verbal as emotional. A series of twenty poems, the meditations are loosely retrieved from a calendar of laundry days and (especially) a fixation with washing lines strung all over the world. She mentally and sometimes actually photographs them, prompting sarcastic comment: "You don't have clothes lines in Ontario?" Well not like Lahey's, that's for sure. Also included are prosaic emblems¨socks and jeans and shirts¨of which she makes consistently surprising and delightful use. The playfulness and verve of Lahey's deceptively understated declarative voice is such that she can shift between travel, childhood and love without losing grip on the metaphysical ideas her poems are pinned to.
"Nothing here will blow away", she says of clothes pegged secure. The most emotionally weighty of the poems address the permanence of feelings. My favourites were the two or three astonishingly affective love lyrics. For example, "The Drip-Dry Method" where "Your/grey-haired jeans yee-ha/over green tomatoes" in the garden,
Weeds writhe beneath the morning
Glory, overgrown and slithering
Through the back door. Can't we spare
A wooden peg to fasten our promise
To that line?
"Why Your White Tube Socks are Holey" lightly wears a lovely melancholic weight of symbols and soft allusions. Worn down from habit and routine, a lover's running socks are always put on a certain way, to stop blisters:
You choose which side
Covers the heel, always
The same, humming, unrolling
Their ribbed necks along your calves
Before you run: out the door, down
The porch the walk the road the path that takes you
Away from my loving grip. These brief,
Sweaty escapes. If only you'd come back
With songs and famished lips. I button
My expectations quietly over your chest. You know
What I like: blues and Billie Holiday, your voice
Let loose, wrung socks on the line
Squirming to hear. Hold Still. Let the music
Run through your shredding heels. Listen
For when you don't need me. Your ballads, your
Filling me, partly: all that is rundown, trailing
While it might be easy to avoid blisters, other kinds of rawness and injury are harder to prevent. "Consider recklessness, how it breeds/ In safe places," is a line uttered knowing that the most extreme of experiences are as easily found in a back yard or laundry bin. The washing line metaphor is a brilliant example of this idea, but it isn't the only time that Lahey displays the appetite and curiosity that enables her to go beyond domestic interiors. The world, in other words, is always pressing in, as in "Suspension" where, on holiday, "We rose early/due to life's roaring, ocean horn blasting/salt in our pores."
We see a different side of this world-in-her-pores in the collection's the second sequence, `Post-War Procession', where we proceed through chapters in history; from VE Day, to women in munitions factories (the wonderfully titled "In the Building of Future Explosions") to the discovery of concentration camps by allied soldiers.
While these poems are unfailingly accomplished, for me they lack the idiosyncrasy of the poems in which history has a more oblique presence, embedded inescapably in the fabric of lives, as in the fantastically deft and powerful, "Seven-Foot Balsam Fir From the Parkdale Market".
This is both a rueful and loving interrogation of absurd rituals, as much about nostalgia for childhood routine as about feeling guilt at good luck, and a kind of squeamishness about the brutality of the past and the present, with which it's all too easy to empathise. "It takes two to sacrifice a fir" proclaims our ironic guide. Every year, at Christmas, another dead tree is dressed up with "a sliver of sky¨an angel, a star", loaded too with more serious losses and sacrifices and brutality ("the fir is a fresh kill; we dress it in tinsel, bells. For mercy"). And yet, we experience nostalgia and regret for the tree, as well as a harmless kind of innocence: "Think of woods, night, a diet/of snow . . . Mom clutching a thermos."
Lahey is such a deft and witty poet¨sardonic but never cold, adept at expanding from domestic emblems or private moments (the washing line, the lover who has gone off for a jog)¨that it's not just the Eastern settings of her work that call to mind Elizabeth Bishop. In "Cape Breton Relative", the final sequence, Bishop's poem, "Questions of Travel", seems touchingly present but, as throughout the collection, without ever giving a sense of unresolved influence. "Think of the long trip home./Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?" As in "Questions of Travel", Lahey locates a kind of "childishness" in wanting, impulsively, to run around the world: "how/you scrambled your names into breakfast dishes, circled the planet/wielding expectation."
As with the washing lines, it's in the physical details of a Maritime landscape that hasn't changed that a sort of rueful peace is negotiated. Our narrator can be as rapt too at this cleaner world of air and fishing and simpler appetites. How apt are the children who "jump recklessly from bridges" and the giving river, blessing indiscriminately, splashing aging dogs, jellyfish children, the river underfoot, washing up that image of blistered feet once more:
She holds your pink feet, takes pity on you, the way
You have hardened in some places, softened in others.
These poems are chapters with neat headings that never give much away, "In Which You Approach From a Distance", "In Which You Resist the Urge to Write Home" (wherever that may be) .
Similarly, the geography of the island keeps its own secrets: it is like every wanted sought-after lover there has been, or will ever be: "With him you belong/any old place." You climb
daily into that crevice
below his jaw, survey the jagged,
sculpted world. It matters not
what you see, you see it round-eyed,
blessed. Prepare, even now. This nook
will fill in: avalanche, dust, some squatter
who follows you scrambling into love
one tired old night.
This is a vision of separateness eclipsed by "love": "It matters not / what you see, you see it round-eyed, / blessed." Blessedness is that state of belonging that consistently undercuts the sense of just passing through.
Out to Dry in Cape Breton ends in emotional territory as tautly balanced between unsettling distance and intense intimacy as all those selves and hopes dancing on washing lines at its start. Melancholic yet entertaining, Lahey is a poet who gets her verve and energy from these wind-whipped tangles of feeling. Every time she walked out, willing, onto the line, she led so confidently that I was ready to follow.
Poet and journalist, Olivia Coles lives in London, England