While it’s true that acclaimed poet Roo Borson has always been a traveller and imagist in the spirit of the ancient Eastern poets, her 2004 collection, A Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida (which won the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award), represented a watershed moment in her career, in part because it explicitly melded her considerable talent for description and metaphor to ancient Japanese Haibun forms of verse. The poems became both more personal and more expansive.
Borson’s new collection continues to explore this poetic architecture: it’s intentionally prosaic and diaristic, and it’s epigrammatic, following ancient blueprints. The poet who once spoke of “All these words, and few rules, save one” has travelled far afield to unearth yet more for herself.
Whereas the younger Borson would bend and shape her subjects to create stunning comparisons, in these poems she appears intent on entirely eschewing the desire to meddle. The poems in Rain; road; an open boat document as much of the sensory field as they can, as slowly as possible, and wait for collisions. “Black moth / beside my black sock” brings “Happiness at last!” but only after a series of free juxtapositions – descriptions of moonlight, whippoorwills. At its best this method makes the poems spacious and companionable, allowing one thing to settle down with the next in equilibrium. At other times, the verses seem detached to the point of disinterestedness, like the horses in the long closing poem, “Cathedral,” “whose only labour / is to look.”
Cathedrals, shacks, and guesthouses appear everywhere in this volume, in states that range from grandeur to disrepair. These buildings mirror the structural interplay between prose and poetry throughout the collection. The prose poems are written in a style that could be described as sturdy and unadorned, while the couplets and epigrams are permeable, even breezy. All of it aches to be hospitable to the reader. Only one short poem, “Ossian’s Folly, Black Linn Falls,” rushes with recognizably Anglo-Saxon energy. Fittingly, it appears after the afterword, like the skyline of a fast-paced world or a “hard new poetry” in the distance.