Poetry Review by Barbara Colebrook Peace

Cornelia Hoogland, Trailer Park Elegy (Madeira Park: Harbour, 2017.) Paperbound, 88 pp., $18.95.

Trailer Park ElegyTrailer Park Elegy, a beautiful remembrance of the poet’s brother, goes beyond the boundaries of its overt subject to reflect on life and death, identity and being, separation and connection, in imagery that reaches beyond the brief span of [our] human life. Whale and sparrow, the universe and dark matter, the Pentlach people and the fish weir they built two thousand years ago, all enter the story. Cornelia Hoogland, an experienced poet and dramatist, has drawn on the depths of her poetic knowledge to create an organic long poem that sings in the darkness and lights up our own lives with its brief flare. 

From the beginning, the poet grounds the narrative firmly in the particulars of local space and ordinary, contemporary time, with herself as a woman alone in a parked car at the edge of Deep Bay on Vancouver Island. Nothing could be plainer than the car, with its “[s]mell of wet dog, / soggy car mats.” yet the beach is a liminal space:

At the horizon, fold where
sky and water meet, the membrane
between the living and the dead

This is the constant setting from which the story embarks and to which it returns. The car at the beach is a home for grief, a sanctuary from which the narrator’s reflections move outward. I found this still point comforting; moreover, it provides stability among the shifting timescapes. Because Hoogland’s brother, William, died in a car accident on black ice, the car is an apt symbol to choose to extend throughout the narrative. Sometimes it is the stopped car of grief, sometimes the shared family car of childhood; later it is the brother’s truck, which becomes his tomb; at other times, extending out into the social and cultural sphere, the parked car contrasts with a recurring image of speeding traffic.

Besides symbol, Hoogland makes skillful use of word repetition, an ancient device of oral poetry, as a unifying device to link passages and create a series of allusive echoes. This is not a linear narrative, but one that proceeds in a form of echolocation. “Where are you?” the question sister and brother ask of each other, speaks across the story in the beautiful and telling metaphor: “a whale in its depth, echoing….; one orca to another, across great distances.” The words “where,” “when,” “car,” “truck, “who,” Thank you,” “because,” “alone,” “light,” “darkness,” and  “Yes” make a beautiful pattern of sound on the poem’s waters. This book-length poem is best read through from start to finish, as the physical soundings are enriched by their multiple associations. The incantatory words also become physical entities, something the poet, and consequently the reader, holds onto in grief.

In fact, much of the book is an attempt to find and hold reality, as we can observe by looking at how certain repeated words—where, when, who, because, and yes—alternately serve to ask questions or to answer them. Another question at the heart of the story is “Are you alone?” It occurs as part of the dialogue between the dying William and a passer-by, Eric. William answers “Yes.” And the story, which begins with “the park is deserted,” and “the beach is deserted” moves in its various time-shifts to show other places where the answer is Yes: “My brother alone in his boat” and the poet’s self in childhood: “I play alone in the alley.” At the same time, however, another question, one a friend asks the narrator, “Were you close?” is also answered by a resounding “Yes.” We are conscious of “aloneness” in this narrative and yet the presence of the brother gradually becomes stronger and stronger. And we do come to know William, in episodes ranging greatly in tone. In places, with lyricism: “in flannel sleeves, sweat and cedar, / boyhood’s cut grass and almonds.” In contrast is her humorous acknowledgement that a person’s essential being cannot be rendered in a “brilliant…black diamond” metaphor. This comes at the end of a story of William and his mother fishing in a boat that ends “But no. Fish. This is him.”

The images the poet presents are vivid: sometimes William is contained, driving in his truck, or in an apartment, feeding his children macaroni. At other times we see him though an image of flight, as he becomes Beowulf’s sparrow flying in from the dark, through a mead hall, and flying again out into the dark. We see William holding a newborn baby, a liminal image where time collapses, for the baby “has the look of the newly arrived— / recently from that world / to which my brother is going.” And it is with the sense of an ongoing journey, not a stopped place, that the poem ends, with brother and sister calling out to each other, as in an ocean depth: “Where are you?… Where are you?” In a poem that is so much about the act of listening: between persons, between worlds, and between creatures, it is fitting that we hear at the close, beneath the human voices, the whales’ under-song.  On setting down the book, I am grateful for this knowledge of a particular human being; grateful, too, in sympathy with William’s very last words:  “Thank You.” In the poet’s words:  “an entire life’s meaning / Thank you / can ride the exhale.”


—Barbara Colebrook Peace

As in The Malahat Review, 203, Summer 2018