In her 2007 collection of critical writings, Little Eurekas, Robyn Sarah cites the Canada Council’s definition of a collection of poetry, which states that it must contain more than 48 pages, as being detrimental to the publication of solid writing. To meet this requirement “poets pad new collections with their warm-ups, misfires, and exercises, persuading themselves they can pass these off as poems.” As far as Sarah is concerned, 48 pages should be a maximum rather than a minimum.
At 88 pages, Sarah’s own new book of poems – her ninth – is, according to her own yardstick, more padded than a late-blooming grad on prom night. But page count is hardly the point here. A collection of 48, 88, or even 108 pages can justify itself provided none of that space is wasted on poetry that is less than proficient. The problem with Pause for Breath is that, despite a number of strong poems, there is wasted space.
In “A Place of Ruin,” the first of the book’s three sections, Sarah takes on the post-9/11 age of paranoia: “In the corner of every eye,” she writes in “A.D. 2007,” “is that madman building a bomb.” In “In the Middle of the Night,” she writes that “something fell / was it our face? / the towers? / an empire?”
Sarah is capable of greater subtlety than this, and employs it in poems like the masterful “After the Storm,” in which “The leaf that under / the dripping eaves / receives / rain’s overflow,” must “bow sharply / under the impact / of each drip that falls […] and does so with the / crispness of a / Hasid praying.” Her mastery is in withholding that final image until the last line of the poem.
Why then, given Sarah’s obvious fluency (here, often, and in previous collections), does she feel bound to include in this collection poems like “Brink” (in which “Mind skips like a stone / on the surface of waking” and “words […] flurry the air like moths”) which, in their reliance on cliché, seem utterly lacking in ambition?
There are memorable poems in Pause for Breath, but as a whole, the collection isn’t equal to Sarah’s great talent.