Pat Lowther Memorial Award Shortlist
The League of Canadian Poets’ Pat Lowther Memorial Award is given for a book of poetry by a Canadian woman published in the preceding year, in memory of the late Pat Lowther, whose career was cut short by her untimely death in 1975. The award carries a $1,000 prize.
Congratulations to Maureen Scott Harris, finalist.
Slow Curve Out by Maureen Scott Harris (Pedlar Press)
2013 Jury: Kate Braid, Gay Allison, Marsha Barber
A R E V I E W, The Goose 12/13 2013
The Rapids by SUSAN GILLIS Brick Books, 2012 $19.00
Slow Curve Out by MAUREEN SCOTT HARRIS Pedlar Press, 2012 $20.00
Reviewed by PHOEBE WANG
In The Rapids, Susan Gillis delicately circumscribes the shape of things before they take shape. Gillis’ third collection of poetry does not attempt to pin down indefinable feelings or places, only to outline their constant shifts. They explore how our private lives are negotiated in spaces beyond the borders of our attention. The spirit of Ariel moves through these poems, but so does the voice of a mature self who now questions her prior understandings of the world.
Gillis’ work expresses a sense of the ungraspable and the ambiguous, which may leave some readers scrambling for something solid to rest upon. The poems convey that feeling of certainties sliding out from beneath you. Fear and panic often instigate insight. For instance, the speaker tells us, “Stepping outside the house at dusk I’m afraid / I’m stepping into another form, / my edges losing their edge, arms shading into the trees,” but the “chill air” beyond the open door “is not what I thought. / It is the lit and humming in here / rushing out of the frame.” It is not only the boundaries between the public and private and between domesticity and wildness that Gills calls into question, but also between the spiritual and material world.
These boundaries do not merely dissolve; the world’s different spheres overlap in Gillis’ images. Doors are willed open by “our hundred exhalations,” a black bear moving towards us precipitates “the sudden brightness of knowledge, / the room inside us for it,” and an open window “admits more than I can bear… Closed it’s stifling. / Either way I can’t rest.” That restlessness drives much of the book’s movement and revelations. Yet moments of self- knowledge are quickly undermined by the world’s propulsive evolutions. As a result, the speaker must backtrack and reposition herself again and again: “Every morning / I walked through a world slightly altered, / taking a new inventory.” By taking stock of incremental changes, in how her “tracks begin to fill in, / smudge into the shade that settles on things. . . ” the speaker realizes, “My apprenticeship has begun.”
Is it any wonder that she reveals a kind of helplessness, when air and dust are “wanting form” and her body seems about to dissolve? In the subjective experiences she holds up to the light, the reader is acutely aware of absences. A recurring figure is that of the young man at the edge of forest, whose perspective we can never have, and Saint Jerome, “searching the port and the neighborhoods / for entrances into the wild.” The shining pebble of the book is the long poem sequence, ‘The Rapids’, published in an earlier version in a chapbook with Gaspereau Press. This series of views and glimpses of the Lachine rapids gives the sensation of seasons passing in a blur, while a certain part of the consciousness remains sharp, yet wistful. The more that the reader attempts to derive some gist of the matter, the more the rush of images, like the quick water itself, can overcome you.
Concerned with how we are carried from place to place, how we are drawn into places and by unnamed forces “that propel us / into the storm,” Gillis’ poems swerve and pivot. Fragments, half- finished thoughts, exclamations and questions move the lines forward and keep them from stagnating. At times, it can be difficult to infer the speaker’s emotional trajectory or rationale, because these are not poems that jump to conclusions. They leave space for the reader to look up, like a house with high ceilings.
We move from the St. Lawrence and Montreal Island to the grasslands of Maureen Scott Harris’ upbringing in Saskatchewan, and the streetcars of Toronto where she currently resides. Slow Curve Out is the third book of poems from this Trillium-award winning poet, and the League of Canadian Poets named Slow Curve Out a finalist in the Pat Lowther Memorial Award.
Harris’ candid, forthcoming poems propose that “to enter a field or room might be a form of conversation.” The reader listens in on this conversation Harris generously shares with us, which she is having with other writers, with memory, and with her surroundings. Epistolary, anecdotal, and chatty, the poems often step into a call-and-response mode. The book opens, for instance, with ‘Walking in Saskatchewan with Rilke,’ in which walking is a form of meditation for the poet, even though she expects no certainties: “I guess I’m not waiting for any particular / answer, no marks given for poetic sensibility.” Rather, these conversations and these walks are a means of the poet to look to nature for insights about the cycle of life, and what she refers to as “griefwork.”
The book’s first section, “Back Up, Begin Again,” is where Harris maps out a kind of ethos, a way of listening to the world. In “Epistemology: The World Speaks,” the speaker identifies her touchstones and attempts to orient herself: “I dream of a language yearning for landscape.” Her words may “yearn to be embodied,” but at the same time, she also desires a wider arena of possibility, which walking and contemplation may open up:
Walking may empty the mind’s geometry, unhook its angles from their linked confusion, that oxymoronic insistence on contained space. “The Ten Thousand Things,” the book’s middle section, is less a catalogue than it is an assemblage of desires and birdsongs. Here, Harris pulls up the lynchpins of syntax to mimic the magpies, crows, sparrows and “animal lives” moving through the poems. The looser forms and onomatopoetic fragments convey the speaker’s immersion in the present: “my mind darts too, frantic to keep up– laundry, letters, dishes, what first, what next? / O-O virtuous virtuous virtuous / calls the white throated sparrow. . . . ” these erratic, spare lines evoke the kinetic and instinctual movements of birds and animals themselves. In ‘Walking Ghazals,’ Harris recalls Adrienne Rich’s famous Ghalib and Blue Ghazals, with a similar probing, plaintive tone: “Where do I belong?” But “Questions again—they’re a manner of speaking / rising like poppies in the yellowing fields.”
Harris continues to dream and wonder about the uncanny animal lives in the book’s last section, asking, “Whose dream is this anyway and / what ears pricked to which wind?” The poems are cognizant of the startling inadequacy of our representations of animals. The speaker confesses: “I inhabit my body so badly… I want three minutes in the skin of another animal.” While this longing remains impossible, the poems cast light on the wild spirit in daughters and families. The reader is alerted to how the wild does not only apply to the animal world, but to those who transgress social customs and occupy the fringe of the forbidden. Harris is sensitive to the way that the body’s sensuality has been framed as bestial and uncivilized. She claims these experiences as having a deep place in our culture. One of Harris’ greatest strengths as a poet is her versatility. At her disposal are many different rhythms and timbres tuned to the “echoes within the bone.”
Rich, Adrienne. The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.
PHOEBE WANG’s poems have appeared in Arc, Canadian Literature, CV2, Descant, Grain and are forthcoming in Ricepaper Magazine. Her chapbook will be appearing with Odourless Press in Fall 2013. Born in Ottawa, she is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s MA in Creative Writing program. She is also reviewer and contributor to The Puritan and The Toronto Review of Books. More of her work can be found at www.alittleprint.com.