Poetry Reviews by Bardia Sinaee

Pamela Porter, Defending Darkness (Vancouver: Ronsdale, 2016). Paperbound, 86 pp., $15.95.

Shirley Graham, Shakespearean Blues (Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue, 2016). Paperbound, 90 pp., $19.95.

Defending DarknessArtwork by students newly enrolled in a painting class can be both heartening and underwhelming. Even among those with a grasp of light, colour, and space, a uniformity of subject often prevails: apples spread along rustic table runners; nudes perched demurely upon stools; peacock trains and silver birches whose markings on second glance look—gasp!—like eyes.

The poems in Defending Darkness, the latest collection by Sidney, B. C. author Pamela Porter, are held together by sound technical foundations, but feel restricted by a narrow imaginative and emotional range.

The rains had come. The rains had come at last, and cattle
rambled in long, slow lines toward the barn. The rains
and dusk’s stain spreading into what only yesterday was light.
She thought of June, June rain in the late light, and the evening
she came upon the bone house of a hare the ravens had dropped
into the horses’ trough… (“Wild rose”)

Many of the poems in Defending Darkness resemble “Wild rose”: single stanzas of about a page, with internally rhymed lines that break almost invariably after 12 to15 beats and are packed with rural imagery. In addition to wild roses and many wild horses (the latter being perhaps the book’s central image), there are rusted tractors planted with petunias, reins braided from bailing twine, cloven tracks, barn owls, rattlesnakes trampled by cows, and a windmill “banging its broken wings” (“Wild rose”). Beyond the pastoral motif, the poems in Defending Darkness fixate on extremes of beauty and pain to the extent that these themes begin to feel like shorthand for poetic significance. Most descriptions evoke solitude or violence; nature is anthropomorphized and put through the wringer so often that almost nothing escapes unscathed. The moon is always leaving “with nothing in her arms” (“Forgotten Wars”), delivering a “lonely mating call, unanswered,” (“Admonition”) or “[lying] in pieces on the grass” (“Patience”).

Certainly, the painful themes are not arbitrary; abandonment, for instance, is a thread throughout the book. “I did go on in my life, without a father, without / a mother,” begins the speaker in “How it all turned out.” “I went inside and dressed what I found / in a father suit, a mother dress.” The father suit and mother dress are one of many instances where mythology takes the place of an absence, but too often the myths seem contrived, using sentimental clichés, cryptic language, and overwrought syntax. “Men they were, but boys,” is how the speaker of “Bottle tree” describes the tormentors of Nettie, a woman/ghost who, like many of the stoic figures and Byronic men in Defending Darkness, resembles a stereotype. “How fragile we are, how temporal,” cries the chickadee in “None so prized,” helpfully explaining the symbolism of its song.

The best moments in Darkness occur when Porter wrestles these imposing themes back down to earth:

Can there be love spared of pity? Yes, yes… and I knew
when he told me, as we lay together in the sleigh bed, my head
a stone weighing down his chest, that he expected of me
nothing less.     (“Sacramento canyon”)

Here, after a heavy, loaded question is disarmed with affectionate unconcern—“Yes, yes…”— the second sentence’s internal rhymes and embedded clauses slowly reveal an image in which love is personal, tangible, and meaningful.

Shakespearean BluesThere is no shortage of the personal in Shakespearean Blues, the new collection by Shirley Graham of Salt Spring Island, B. C. About to board the ferry that takes her every morning from her “green, warm home to the indifferent working world,” the speaker of “Blue Snail” admits, “I would love to never go… I would love to turn the boat around with a crisis of faith or medicine or sanity.” Then she drives onto the ferry. This sense of deflation, or deferred expectation, recurs throughout the book.

Shakespearean Blues uses passages, premises, and characters from the bard’s plays as springboards for poems about everything from modern parenting to an unfinished sandwich in a crumpled napkin. Rendering in miniature the grand themes and twists of the plays to which they allude, the poems are more attuned to the possibility of drama or crisis—the turning of the boat, so to speak. Many are short imaginative exercises driven by a voice or image derived from Shakespeare.

In addition to tidy, almost parable-like lyrics, there are monologues, diarist prose poems, and haiku. Graham has a knack for expressing rich sentiments plainly, for instance in “Blue Prospero,” where she writes: “Having something to say / is a dangerous form / of magic, / and lonely.”  However, this plain-spokenness can fall flat against Shakespeare’s eloquence. Earlier in the same poem, Graham’s Prospero sounds a bit like a stoned undergraduate: “Weaving words from my dusty tomes / on an island inhabited by no one, / what does it come to?” The powerful but alienating magic is an obvious allegory for writing, just like Prospero’s closing soliloquy in The Tempest, so by placing the poem near the end of her collection, Graham is not riffing off of so much as re-contextualizing Shakespeare.

In contrast, the speaker of “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” prompted by the famous stage direction from A Winter’s Tale, is literally chased out of the theatre and into the street, unsure if the beast is “a real thing / or part of the play,” hoping the audience is still following. Here is Graham taking Shakespeare off the stage to create something distinct, a funny and tragic poem whose content enacts its concept. The pursuit parallels the fraught nature of Graham’s task: the success of Shakespearean Blues depends on the poet going where Shakespeare could not.

—Bardia Sinaee

As in The Malahat Review, 200, Autumn 2017, 153-158