Dave Margoshes’s sixth volume of poetry confirms him as a poet who translates life experiences into sensitive commentaries on the deep structures of humanity. In this instance, his focus is on family and death. Coupled with that thoughtfulness is a playfulness that that both softens and stings. This collection demonstrates Margoshes’s remarkable control of his material and his fundamental insight. The book is broken down into four sections, the first of which is the most affecting, though all contain gems.
In the breathtaking opener, “Birthday,” Margoshes argues for his ordinariness, which is contradicted forcefully by his father: “But / no, my father insisted, the sky held its breath that day, / pulling the air out of his own lungs. I was there, / he said, I saw it.” The absolute love between father and son elucidated here is picked up in many of the later poems.
Margoshes grapples frankly with a life experience most of us have to face: the deaths of our parents. In “Ashes,” the speaker smokes an ancient cigarette from a package his father had left in his car: “In the stale bitter smoke / that assaults my lungs, I taste my father’s love / one last time. His death was a triple play: cold / to pneumonia to emphysema, out.” This poem also touches on an additional fraught aspect of attending a dying relative: “In his hospital bed, he leaned / into my ear to whisper a plea, not for one last smoke, / as I expected, but to end his life, one wish / I could not grant.” The grief is lacerating on multiple levels.
The poems in A Calendar of Reckoning, while mainly lyric, often encapsulate a life story. In “My Mother’s Ring,” Margoshes describes how his father cuts off his mother’s wedding ring after she is stung by a bee on her finger. The father jokes about the choice between saving a ring or a wife – a cute comment on a potentially serious situation. The implications of this quip shift dramatically only at the poem’s end: “for the rest of her life my mother wore / no ring and she never would say if / they’d made the right choice.”
Throughout the collection, Margoshes refers to other poets and includes poems about poetry. “The Poem Seduces the Poet” is an excellent example of his sense of humour, which underscores the serious question of inspiration – where poems come from. Initially resistant and misbehaving, the poem “takes a deep breath / and makes a new commitment, vowing / to behave, to live up to expectations.” Where, then, is the control – in the hands of the poet or the poem?
Anyone familiar with prairie rivers (Margoshes lives outside of Saskatoon) will be drawn to the four-part poem “The River” – the longest in the book. Margoshes depicts the river in different seasons and assigns it personality traits: “Along the sandy bars, / the river becomes humble, even obsequious / turning its belly to you the way a puppy might.” The immense power of the river at various stages is matched by its beauty.
While some poems – especially the few folksy ones – appear less successful, such an assessment may ultimately be a matter of taste. A Calendar of Reckoning has poems I will return to many times.