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Book Reviews

Water Memory

by Roo Borson

Water Memory, Roo Borson’s brilliant, moody, ninth collection of poetry, offers the reader a very broad tonal variety, from the playful, often joyous poems of “Cloud Music” (the book’s first section) to the desolate, grief-stricken pieces in “Continuous Elegy” (its third).

This graceful modulation of tone is an indication of the author’s maturity of vision: the world, she is saying, is more than one thing. Another indication is Borson’s increasing interest in subjectivity. While there was at times a guarded quality in Borson’s early work, in Water Memory, the enquiry is pervasive, making this new book Borson’s most personal by far.

This is not to say that, as readers, we can assume an easy and direct identification between the “I” of the poems and the author herself. The “self” that is explored is not considered as a straightforward given. Any notion of a constant self is mitigated by myriad factors, not the least of which are time and, ultimately, death.

In “Summer Cloud,” for example, the first poem in the book, the “I” is only briefly present, and who is addressing whom, and when and where this speech is taking place, is very difficult to discern. Abrupt shifts in point of view, even in topic, will have an unsettling effect on many readers.

A similar disconcerting shift occurs in “Mathematics” with the sudden appearance of the exotic Margaret McClintock upon whose elegant finger sits the square root of two. McClintock and other literary figures (poets George Bowering, Al Purdy, and Robert Gray) are not the only proper names which appear, unexplained or unexplainable, in the poems. In two poems, “Everyone Dies” and “Margaret Livingston,” a roster of unfamiliar proper names, the names of ordinary people, is provided. These names become emblems of the mystery of identity, of the mortal human self. The invocation of the names acts as a charm to invoke the magical presence – and the physical absence through time or death – of their owners.

Those instances in which one can happen upon the self contain a revelatory potential. In “My Life in an Eighteenth-Century Japanese Print,” the speaker is delivered from her grief because she sees in a painted figure a version of her genuine self. In art, in writing, there is the possibility that the genuine self can outlive the corpse we are all to become. Water Memory offers a profound and powerful insight into the tragic and, at the same time, redemptive knowledge of what language can do.