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 Â R E V I E W,Â The Goose 12/13 2013
The Rapids by SUSAN GILLIS Brick Books, 2012 $19.00
Slow Curve OutÂ by MAUREEN SCOTT HARRIS Pedlar Press, 2012 $20.00
Reviewed by PHOEBE WANG
In The Rapids, Susan Gillis delicatelyÂ circumscribes the shape of things before they take shape. Gillisâ€™ 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 ofÂ a mature self who now questions her prior understandings of the world.
Gillisâ€™ 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, â€œStepping outside the house at dusk Iâ€™m afraid / Iâ€™m stepping into another form, / my edges losing their edge, arms shading into the trees,â€ but the â€œchill airâ€ beyond the open door â€œis not what I thought. / It is the lit and humming in here / rushing out of the frame.â€ 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 worldâ€™s different spheres overlap in Gillisâ€™ images. Doors are willed open by â€œour hundred exhalations,â€ a black bear moving towards us precipitates â€œthe sudden brightness of knowledge, / the room inside us for it,â€ and an open window â€œadmits more than I can bear… Closed itâ€™s stifling. / Either way I canâ€™t rest.â€ That restlessness drives much of the bookâ€™s movement and revelations. Yet moments of self- knowledge are quickly undermined by the worldâ€™s propulsive evolutions. As a result, the speaker must backtrack and reposition herself again and again: â€œEvery morning / I walked through a world slightly altered, / taking a new inventory.â€ By taking stock of incremental changes, in how her â€œtracks begin to fill in, / smudge into the shade that settles on things. . . â€ the speaker realizes, â€œMy apprenticeship has begun.â€
Is it any wonder that she reveals a kind of helplessness, when air and dust are â€œwanting formâ€ 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, â€œsearching the port and the neighborhoods / for entrances into the wild.â€ The shining pebble of the book is the long poem sequence, â€˜The Rapidsâ€™, 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 â€œthat propel us / into the storm,â€ Gillisâ€™ 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 speakerâ€™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 Harrisâ€™ 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 ofÂ Canadian Poets named Slow Curve OutÂ a finalist in the Pat Lowther Memorial Award.
Harrisâ€™ candid, forthcoming poems propose that â€œto enter a field or room might be a form of conversation.â€ 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 â€˜Walking in Saskatchewan with Rilke,â€™ in which walking is a form of meditation for the poet, even though she expects no certainties: â€œI guess Iâ€™m not waiting for any particular / answer, no marks given for poetic sensibility.â€ 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 â€œgriefwork.â€
The bookâ€™s first section, â€œBack Up, Begin Again,â€ is where Harris maps out a kind of ethos, a way of listening to the world. In â€œEpistemology: The World Speaks,â€ the speaker identifies her touchstones and attempts to orient herself: â€œI dream of a language yearning for landscape.â€ Her words may â€œyearn to be embodied,â€ but at the same time, she also desires a wider arena of possibility, which walking and contemplation may open up:
Walking may empty the mindâ€™s geometry, unhook its angles from their linked confusion, that oxymoronic insistence on contained space. â€œThe Ten Thousand Things,â€ the bookâ€™sÂ 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 theÂ magpies, crows, sparrows and â€œanimal livesâ€ moving through the poems. The looser forms and onomatopoetic fragments convey the speakerâ€™s immersion in the present: â€œmy mind darts too, frantic to keep upâ€“ laundry, letters, dishes, what first, what next? / O-O virtuous virtuous virtuous / calls the white throated sparrow. . . . â€ these erratic, spare lines evoke the kinetic and instinctual movements of birds and animals themselves. In â€˜Walking Ghazals,â€™ Harris recalls Adrienne Richâ€™s famous Ghalib and Blue Ghazals, with a similar probing, plaintive tone: â€œWhere do I belong?â€ But â€œQuestions againâ€”theyâ€™re a manner of speaking / rising like poppies in the yellowing fields.â€
Harris continues to dream and wonder about the uncanny animal lives in the bookâ€™s last section, asking, â€œWhose dream is this anyway and / what ears pricked to which wind?â€ The poems are cognizant of the startling inadequacy of our representations of animals. The speaker confesses: â€œI inhabit my body so badly… I want three minutes in the skin of another animal.â€ 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 bodyâ€™s sensuality has been framed as bestial and uncivilized. She claims these experiences as having a deep place in our culture. One of Harrisâ€™ greatest strengths as a poet is her versatility. At her disposal are many different rhythms and timbres tuned to the â€œechoes within the bone.â€
Rich, Adrienne. The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.
PHOEBE WANGâ€™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 Torontoâ€™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.