Intent, Or The Weight Of The World by Roo Borson (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)
Angels Of Flesh, Angels Of Silence by Lorna Crozier (McClelland & Stewart, 1988)
Review by Stephen Morrissey
Roo Borson and Lorna Crazier are accomplished and mature poets. While not without faults, their work is still superior to that of many other contemporary poets in this country. These are two poets who deserve to be read; they provide the "distant early warning" signal indicating where society is going and what it is becoming. According to Marshall McLuhan this is one of the artist's most important functions.
The title poem of Roo Borson's Intent, or the Weight of the World is the most impressive poem in this volume. It is a narrative poem that deals with highly introspective feelings regarding the loss of meaning and psychological dysfunction. Borson writes:
The other week in a department store
I picked up a pair of shoes from a
clearance table and couldn't tell
whether they were ugly or beautiful.
Stricken by this
inability to see,
and all the hands groping around me,
I spent the rest of the day
wandering from store to store.
The alienation expressed in this poem is extreme; it is alienation not only from other people but also from one's own self. This alienation results in the inability to project meaning onto life, events, and relationships. The world has been transformed by the withdrawal of meaning:
Trying to settle down with a book,
after a few sentences I'd feel put out;
I'd pick things up, a letter, a bookmark,
and simply let them drop . . .
Still, all things considered,
I felt "fine,"
just as when you answer the telephone
and, instead of the dreaded, anticipated voice,
it's a friend, whom you like— relieved,
you do suddenly feel "fine" —
In this psychological state there is the desire to escape from everyday events, as well as what seems to be a heightened perception of reality. Things are seen in a different way, the old casual connections that held the universe together have unraveled. Borson writes:
More and more what stood out
were not people's looks or gestures
but what propped them up,
the grandiose belief in a saviour,
dumb, unyielding, vapid,
that everything is caused . . .
It's as though the narrator of "Intent" has slipped into a "parallel universe," inhabiting the same space but with the meaning of things somehow altered. There is now a different way of interpreting reality, one that is acausal and therefore at odds with the way reality was formerly experienced.
But meaning returns, not because we will its return, but because the ground has been prepared through long hours of intensive observation and contemplation:
Someone I knew
had been depressed for several years,
told me the story of how
one day he was playing tennis,
and all at once,
seemingly in one thwack of the ball,
back up through the arm,
sensation rushed into him.
Part of the importance of Borson's poem is that she is describing an experience of psychological fragmentation that is common in our society, but one that is not often dealt with in poetry. In this poem the psychological state is described, but Borson rightly provides no analysis or final resolution. Inevitably, it is the reader who must decide if the poem has any value other than as a kind of insider's view of a psychological state. Poetry and art can help to heal the divided self. Borson ends the poem by writing,
And though I had not expected it,
had not willed it,
here and there along the branches,
pink blossoms had broken out.
It is not much of an affirmation of life but it is a beginning. As such it is a heroic statement for it posits meaning over meaninglessness, and the ultimate value of creative expression and self-renewal over temporary but intense states of anxiety and loss of self. Having said all of this, I must add that while this is a good, strong poem, it is also not emotionally moving. It is a strangely cold and factual poem and nowhere does the reader fully sympathize with the narrator; perhaps this is Borson's way of distancing herself from the content of the poem, or of increasing our sense of alienation — we are never really deeply touched by the narrator's emotional plight.
There is also a gap between the vision expressed in "Intent, or the Weight of the World" and the other poems in this volume. The experiences described in "Intent" are isolated from the rest of the book as she moves on to other things. There are, however, other exceptional poems; some of Borson's short lyrical work is excellent. In " Finding Haley's Comet'' she writes:
It was two nights after our father's death,
and we lay against the hill,
slowly passing the binoculars.
I'd been drinking coffee,
thinking about my mother's long silver hair.
Whenever I'm idle I remember how it was.
Another short poem that is exceptional is "After a Death":
Seeing that there's no other way,
I turn his absence into a chair.
I can sit in it,
gaze out through the window.
I can do what I do best
and then go out into the world.
And I can return then with my useless love,
because the chair is there.
The poems in which Borson gives us insight into human existence are the ones that are most successful. These poems go beyond artifice to become inspired creation. There are other poems in this volume that are well written, but some are contrived and meant only to entertain, "About the Cat" and "Rubber Boots" are among the poems that fall into this category. There is also some bad writing that should never have escaped either Borson or her editor. Why will we accept terrible sentence structure in poetry that would never get past a first draft in prose? Take, for example, the following:
We were tired, but took our money and moved on,
because we could,
not sentenced to that town,
we thought, as the boy was, probably for life.
We moved on
with the night beings from the other world,
which is also our world,
with speed and inattention,
one of those beautiful emptying hand puppets
now and then by the roadside,
"Guernica", as Klee might have painted it, for a windshield,
through desert where motels grow
arid and square with names like The Sands and Oasis.
I don't know what these lines mean. Despite this, Borson is a poet who is worth reading. While I have concentrated on the title poem in this review there is much else in Intent, or the Weight of the World that is very good; in fact, there is just too much good work to deal with adequately in a single review.
Lorna Crozier's poems in Angels of Flesh, Angels of Silence are less stylistically adventurous than Roo Borson's; Crozier's style is simple and direct, her poems are accessible, and always informed by an unassuming humour and feeling for humanity. This is evident in her "Penis Poems" (believe it or not!); Crazier writes:
Sure, I'm a woman who likes her pleasure,
but I never understood why the world
turns on it, why life or death
depends on its size. None of my women friends
talks about that,
whether they've bagged a big one
like a poacher in a forest.
In "Overture" she writes:
apostrophe of lust,
come out of the cage
where you lie sleeping.
Crozier is to be commended for bringing out "of the cage" something that most of us never would have considered a poetic subject. But this is partly Crozier's chosen role in poetry— to discuss sexuality in an open and humourous way. One of the best poems in Crozier's book, "Fear of Snakes", evokes a childhood awakening to sexuality. The poem is too long to quote in its entirety but it sets a high standard that some of the other poems in this volume don't quite achieve. She writes:
The snake can separate itself
from its shadow, move on ribbons of light,
taste the air, the morning and the evening,
the darkness at the heart of wings. I remember
when my fear of snakes left for good,
it fell behind me like an old skin.
Crozier deals with lost innocence, the memory of what made us happy as children, and the painful awareness that we can never retrieve our lost innocence. She is working similar territory as that explored by William Blake, the fall from innocence to experience. In "Potato Planters" she describes walking behind her parents:
My father digs the hole
my mother drops the potato in —
she's cut them
so each piece has an eye
I wait till my father
empties his shovel
then stamp the earth
with my bare feet
. . . .
I walk behind them
my feet loving the damp earth
my footprints all over the ground
Even now I see us
moving single file in the fading light
we three the last thing
the eye of the potato sees
The feeling of lost innocence, a time when the senses seemed so much more alive than they do when we are adults, is a melancholy counterpoint to Crozier's humour. In "Twins" she writes,
like the words of a song
you love as a child, like innocence,
a belief in things.
But Crozier's recollection of childhood is not free of unhappiness. In "Fathers, Uncles, Old Friends of the Family" she remembers how
Uncle Peter always told me
to wash my hands before breakfast
because I didn't know where they'd been
in the night what they'd touched
and his hands
lifted me from the paddling pool,
young seal all wet and giggly,
his farmer's hands
soft in the towel,
my mother's youngest brother
The experience of sexual abuse is mentioned in only one poem, but it leaves a lasting impression. How do the following lines from this poem influence our reading of her lighter sexual poems? Crozier writes:
your flesh crawling,
you try not to turn away
when someone you love lays a hand on you.
This is powerful writing. I feel it makes the "Penis Poems" more than humourous; they become heroic in that the narrator has not turned away from sexuality to bitterness, she has transformed a debilitating experience into art and somehow managed to go beyond it. The added pathos and compassion coming from her work must also be acknowledged.
In "Mother and I, Walking" Crozier writes,
Father is gone again,
the streets empty.
Everyone is inside,
listening to radios
in the warm glow of their stoves.
Here Crozier is the outsider, the poet who has chosen to be emotionally moved by the past and surrender to the intoxication of memory. She continues,
Mother opens her old muskrat coat,
pulls me inside.
Her scent wraps around me.
The back of my head presses
into the warm rise of her belly.
Of all the arts it is only poetry that can celebrate moments and memories such as these without seeming sentimental or maudlin. Part of the beauty of poetry is that it exists at a wholly human level, without needing the adornment of gimmicks, pretensions, or what is currently fashionable. Of all the arts poetry is the most difficult to perfect, if it can ever be perfected, for in poetry we deal only with the essentials of existence.
Crozier shows the power of the imagination in "A Woman's Shoe". Crozier writes:
They are moving the bones
in Santiago, making way
for the new.
graves of the poor are holes
in the earth, utilitarian and simple,
the perfect shape
for a body,
yet in one there is
a woman's shoe.
A black high-heel,
a platform sole.
From this shoe Crozier constructs details of a whole human life in which "a woman/walked to meet a man". The shoe symbolizes a victim of totalitarian repression for it belonged to one of the many people who disappeared in the night; who were kidnapped and tortured by the Chilean military regime, and who are never heard from again. Only the shoe remains, a mundane object representing an entire life:
You can feel the leather
on your own foot
on your instep, the high arch.
You wore shoes like that
fifteen years ago.
In some ways Crozier's poem is reminiscent of Pablo Neruda's "Ode to my Socks". In both poems everyday objects transform our perception of existence; both poets move our awareness beyond the everyday to the eternal and universal.
Angels of Flesh, Angels of Silence is not a consistently good book. There are several poems that require further editing for conciseness, and in some other poems the language is flat or flaccid. But there is enough good poetry here to commend the volume. Lorna Crozier may not dazzle us with exotic imagery or convoluted sentence structure, but she is a poet worth listening to. She has her feet on firm ground, and it is from the earth, her origin on the Prairies, that her poetic experience and imagination spring.
Copyright © 2007 The author