Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

A Revision of Forward

by Wendy McGrath

Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments

by Ulrikka S. Gernes; Patrick Friesen (trans.); Per Brask (trans.)

More than 10 years in the making, Wendy McGrath’s A Revision of Forward is the outcome of a collaboration with printmaker Walter Jule. The finished product is a collection of near-mirror poems that at times echo and bounce within themselves, adding layers upon layers as they go.

A-Revision-of-Forward-coverNature is woven throughout the collection – birch and poplars, snails in the garden, a green caterpillar – but so are urban settings, often thick with nostalgia: “a heartbeat and faith in wide asphalt streets / ghost sounds of soon-to-die buildings,” McGrath writes in “Caballus (For Edmonton).”

Although the author’s aim is to create not-quite-mirror poems throughout, the effect is uneven, and some pieces overshadow others. The title poem – at 17 pages, the book’s longest – is powerfully rendered. “O love / you are a thin-skinned lie / a truth told to look the other way,” McGrath writes. And then, “bones of this bed /
shape the secret / that forms the knot / of separation unmade.”

“Pecunia,” “Caballus (For Edmonton),” and “1963 Rambler” are all standouts, each taking on a life and voice of its own. “1963 Rambler,” for example, portrays a “wheeler-dealer” grandfather with a tone that is utterly distinct. In poems like this, McGrath’s skills truly come through, showing off her ability to craft clear, concise verse in so many different ways.

Yet that’s also why some poems seem to blend into the background. It’s not that anything McGrath has written is flawed: there is beauty and depth throughout. But it’s hard to feel as riveted by some of the natural wonders McGrath pulls from – the solstice or freshly picked berries, for example – when they are placed against her more visceral, urgent writing, such as in “Zinjanthropus Boisei”: “It was you / who salvaged the jaw / a mouth-roofed skull / a bowl that held / your marriage / turned to stone / bone from rock.”

Still, McGrath’s poems accomplish much more than their stylistic veneer might suggest. She has given substance top billing, and this collection is rich with detail, honing in on the most delicate, intangible moments and weaving in the raw, often conflicting beauty of city and nature, creating whole new textures with the experiences exposed within.

“I won’t even pretend to symmetry,” Denmark’s Ulrikka S. Gernes writes in “Sparks sleep in flint and I, amorphous, am the answer,” an early poem in her latest collection. It’s an apt line for a book that sometimes hums through sublime dreamscapes (“No, I’m not really in despair / it’s just a dying forest / that tumbles down through me”) before peeling itself right back to the everyday: trips to the supermarket, for example, a cup of tea, the headlights of a taxi.

Frayed-Opus_coverThere is little or no symmetry in Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments, and there doesn’t need to be. Gernes explains she hopes her poems contain a human presence, something familiar or reflective, consoling or engaging. So while Frayed Opus adeptly straddles the surreal and the mundane, these poems consistently reinforce the human connection she is striving achieve by spiralling through loneliness, desire, and nostalgia. These emotional states are set against “the suburbs of the Moon,” locked gates, an apartment, “the mountain chain of my spine,” all landscapes that anchor the poetry with a mood and a subtle, sometimes unspoken history. But then, Gernes believes that “even our silences speak.”

While Gernes’s philosophy is that a poem should stand on its own, rendering its author insignificant once the writing is complete, it is impossible not to experience this collection as anything but a deeply personal document. Almost immediately, an intimacy sets in, as though Gernes is reading these poems right to you, without pretense or self-consciousness. Beautifully crafted lines fraught with melancholy (“My body has washed ashore / I’m with you / as a thought”) feel boldly stark and confessional.

Gernes has 11 poetry collections to her name, which likely helps in making Frayed Opus feel so lived in. Clearly, this is a writer who knows her life and language well. Translated by the Canadian pair of Per Brask and Patrick Friesen, Gernes’s voice remains central throughout this collection, whether she intended it to be or not. As these poems zigzag between the ethereal and the everyday, the effect could easily be disjointed and jarring, even alienating. Instead, Gernes’s tone, which reads like a whisper, tightly and consistently weaves everything together, leaving not a single loose thread when it is finished.