Articles & Reviews

Review of four poetry books

Reviewed in this article:

Anne Michaels, The Weight of Oranges.
Toronto: Coach House Press, 1985. 52 pp.,
$7.50 paper.

Alice Van Wart, Stories to Finish And Other
Poems. Victoria: Sono Nis Press, 1986, 77
pp., $6.95 paper.

Anne Campbell, Death is an Anxious Mother.
Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 1986. 64 pp.,
$8.95 paper.

Harold Rhenisch, Eleusis.
Victoria: Sono Nis Press, 1986.
104 pp., $6.95 paper.

Reviews by Stephen Morrissey
Poetry Canada Review, Volume 8, No. 1, autumn 1986

It's like Christmas morning when one opens a parcel of new poetry books. As usual today many of these new books are by women; the energy and creativity in poetry in Canada seems to be with women, who for so long have been unjustly ignored. As usual as well, all of these books are professionally designed and produced; the days of the mimeoed and stapled chapbook seem to have passed. But what about the poetry? It is inevitably only the content that matters; both poet and poetry book pass into the oblivion that time has waiting for us all. Time is obviously the great critic; if a work of art survives time then there must be something to it, but if it becomes lost in the movement of time, then perhaps it wasn't much good to start with. "From the hour you're born you begin to die," writes Simone de Beauvoir, "But between birth and death there's life." Anne Michaels' The Weight of Oranges shows that she is acutely aware of mortality. Her writing is lyrical and skillful, and she can impress the reader with this combination. In one poem she writes:

The small ship of his bones sinks in the
earth. I cry for my father because of everyone's
short sleeves,
the paleness of arms in the first strong
Beyond the gate, shirts on a line
point their empty sleeves at us.
Warm spring wind, mud drying under our

Michaels is able to create concise, almost haiku-line, imagery. This is her first book of poems and it's an impressive one. She is obviously a talented poet; her style is individual and reading her poetry we become intimately aware of her feelings. There is a distinctive rhythm to her work; it is, unfortunately, the same rhythm throughout the book. This could be an area for experimentation for Michaels and would give her work greater depth and meaning. Her final poem, "Words for the Body", a long poem, drifts off into prose in the last page of the book; this is a disappointing ending for a work that shows such promise.

Alice Van Wart's Stories to Finish & Other Poems combines stories from classical mythology and personal revelations. Van Wart is a disciplined poet who has obviously laboured long and hard over this book. Her poetry contains good strong images and is melodic when it needs to be:

In white boxes there they lie my pretty ones row on row
and comes the night I feel them rise speak in tongues and I caress
and dress and offer my breast to each and every one

The second section of this book is made up of the title poems, "Stories to Finish", They deal with mythological beings through whom the poet attempts to make points about contemporary existence. More interesting is the final section of the book in which Van Wart writes in a simple, direct way. These poems deal with love and the difficulty in expressing love. We know that Van Wart can write but it is in these poems that we hear her authentic voice:

Nights now
you neglect me

forget my soft flesh
surging with life

the night is short
so is summer
though we pretend it is
immortal full of fruit
and flowers and light

I touch my breast
feel the hollow
of another
seedless fall

It would be easy to pass over Anne Campbell's Death is an Anxious Mother, for these poems are simple in the extreme; it is precisely in this simplicity that u e find the strength of her work. These poems seem to be memos that Campbell might have written to herself during the day. They are reminders that there is more to life than the mundane event that threaten to preoccupy us. These are poems of memory and reflection on the day's events. She writes:

a girl about ten
is approaching
she curls
in tall prairie grass
a bird in a nest
her eyes open
and close

a girl about ten
is approaching
she curls
in tall prairie grass
a bird in a nest
her eyes open
and close

Here is the title poem:

Death is
an anxious mother
afraid for her kids
she holds them
too tight she
can't bear the chances
they take

The simplicity of Campbell's poetry is a virtue that is absent in the more complicated work of other poets. This is not to say that her work lacks depth; the very depth of her work lies in its direct evocation of her feelings and perceptions.

There must be readers who like the kind of work Harold Rhenisch has written in Eleusis, but I am not one of them. There are a few short poems in this book, but Rhenisch prefers to write long poems that have a monotonous rhythm and fail to either sing or communicate directly anything of the human condition. Too often there are no images, no emotions, no conciseness, just inflated language. Rhenisch writes:

We remain within whatever
gross approximations
seem most a travesty of all precision:
something solid remains, hardly named
except in form and walking,
something only spoken
while we're alone together.
The end is that love breathes
its loam among the stars
and they breathe their interstellar wastes
upon us and we cannot be split

Many poets throw away better lines than these. One poem, "M.L.S.", would make a good short story, it's already prose; as a poem it is flat and uninspiring. In "Nekuia—at Taishan", Rhenisch writes of Ezra Pound and he can make even Pound boring. Eleusis is the work of a young poet who is getting the wrong advice from his editor, if he has one. When Rhenisch learns how to vigourously edit his work I expect he'll produce some excellent poems; despite what I see as the failings in Eleusis he certainly loves language and the craft of poetry.

Copyright © 2007 The author