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Book Reviews

Aiken Drum

by Peter Sanger

Nova Scotia-based poet and critic Peter Sanger is the author or editor of some 15 books. In Aiken Drum, his sixth collection of poetry, he continues his engagement with the subjects of his previous works in verse and prose: the natural world, handcrafted objects, art, and Maritime lore and legend.

The best poems in this collection have all the felicities that distinguish Sanger’s 1991 book, Earth Moth: taut structures, lyric compression, complex syntax, perspicuous diction, and an instinct for the marriage of sound and sense possessed only by genuine poets. The uncompromising nature of the technique in such poems makes them demanding and craftily layered, like the “Medicine Bundle” of one poem. Readers in search of easy answers and epiphanies will be frustrated by the density and ambiguities of these verses. Sanger’s preoccupation with the quiddity of things means that to do his unique subjects poetic justice – to embody, rather than merely describe, them – his poems must be freestanding objects in their own right.

He’s not always up to the task in Aiken Drum, however. Sanger the critic and professor makes periodic intrusions into the territory of Sanger the poet. There are discursive digressions in several poems and a raft of endnotes; Sanger seems concerned that his readers won’t “get it” without this help. The book’s centrepiece, a 240-line poem about a notorious thief, begins with 21 quatrains of prosy preamble (repeated in a seven-page essay appended to the poems) before it gets into gear.

The book is also marred by Sanger’s tendency to lapse into formulaic phrasing. This isn’t manifest so much in individual poems, as in repetitions from one poem to another, the most glaring instance being the use of possessive formulas like “etching of carbon” and “slate of grey” – 28 instances in the first 20 pages alone – lending the language a belaboured self-consciousness. Such tics force the poems’ subjects to fit into the poet’s own habits of speech.

Nonetheless, Peter Sanger is one of the country’s most underappreciated talents. Aiken Drum does contain fine work, even if it is not his strongest collection.