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Book Reviews

Carrying the Shadow

by Patrick Friesen

What’s poetry good for? Neither preferred nor common, it has no abbreviation on the NASDAQ exchange. But Patrick Friesen’s Carrying the Shadow shows how poetry still holds an uncontested patent in speaking of death. It’s surprising how many memorials in a newspaper contain snatches of verse, as if to show the point where everyday language breaks off and poetry takes over, its formal containment of grief like a last railing of words before the inexpressible. And here is Friesen, standing at the edge and speaking calmly, pointing out every interesting and terrifying thing.

Before moving to Vancouver last year, Friesen spent 30 years in Winnipeg, and his poetry has always held in its playful and largely unpunctuated lines the tension between prairie light and earth, between Orphic utterance and shooting the breeze. While his poems often shimmer in the heat waves between the two, and sometimes diffuse without finding their true mark, this, his 10th book, is beautifully shaped and rock-steady. Throughout his book-length meditation on what death means, the poet keeps returning to a graveyard, to the simple facts of what are left behind – memories, stones, a few words – and to his own responsibility to witness, to remember. Here is writing of laser-like focus and considerable breadth, writing that pays homage to predecessors as diverse as Al Purdy and Federico Garcia Lorca. Friesen has found the great resonance of prairie graveyards and their simple statements of departure, and his elegy contains the austere clarity of the place itself.

The great worth of this book, though, is not in the abstract, but in the value of poetry itself, the delight of right words at the right moment. Friesen, at the height of his power, packs emotion in short lines and unleashes electricity in long ones: “death is here a river of smiles running through the house a red tulip bending in its thirst / a still curtain at noon and a bird fluttering in the eaves a screen door slams but no one’s there.” He remains one of Canada’s few poets who can conjure a believable, understated ecstasy through his carefully talking voice.

This is a beautiful book full of real things – real loss, real fear, real catharsis, and no whiff of chicken soup.