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Book Reviews

What the Living Won’t Let Go

by Lorna Crozier

Lost August

by Esta Spalding

Things That Keep and Do Not Change

by Susan Musgrave

Poet and critic Fraser Sutherland recently remarked in The Globe and Mail on the healthy state of Canadian poetry and noted the even distribution of male and female poets writing in this country. Fans will know that poetry, in general, is enjoying a renewed popularity and is reaching a much wider audience than ever before. This is good news for Susan Musgrave and Lorna Crozier, who have been writing poetry for some time, and even better news for Esta Spalding, who is newer to the craft. While each of these poets articulates the experience of an individual woman, their work is unified by a common interest in the past and the power it exerts over the present and future.

Esta Spalding, the youngest of the three poets, has garnered praise and awards for her previous work, including a first prize in the 1997 National Poetry Contest sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets. Her latest work Lost August is highly imagistic and takes the reader through a personal journey that leads from the difficult past of childhood to the present of impermanent relationships, with a view forward to an uncharted future. Spalding’s poetry explores the hollow centres of lives, where “we inhabit nothing / so much as loss.” Her powerful evocation of everyday life as the site of continual loss is tempered by a celebration of joyous moments. This ability to see through to the other side of loss marks her poetry as redemptive, despite its highly charged uncertainty.

Set in Hawaii, where Spalding spent her childhood, the long poem “Aperture” describes the speaker’s early relationship with her father and helps set the volume’s reflective tone. These are poems that seek to render moments of the past on the page, to capture in print the sense of haunting that lurks in her father’s photographs: “as if his camera held for a moment / what would dissolve.” Childhood summers by the sea merge gradually into “the last summer” and “the last morning” when father and daughter separate. For the speaker, separation is both wound and gift, an irreconcilable duality that she embraces.

Similarly, in “Salad Days,” the speaker knows “it was the beginning / of the end,” in this poignant poem about a love now passed as she looks beyond failure and remembers moments when she felt absolutely certain of her lover’s devotion. A desire to mitigate the dissolution of love, friendship, and landscape is at the heart of this impressive collection.

The poems in part two – dedicated to girlfriends – chart the uneven terrain of female friendship. At once painful and touching, these poems are also rooted in the experience of separation, as friendships end when physical or emotional distance intervenes. Female friendship elicits a range of responses, from the declarative – “Don’t you dare think what’s between us is nothing” – to the gentle – “the last time I / touched your breast / it was to know the orchid / of cancer there.” Despite long absences and brief meetings, these poems recognize residual connections between women. The final section includes the volume’s darkest poem , which unites images from preceding sections and anticipates further loss. For Spalding, the single antidote to pain is poetry, where “lost things gather / for an instant / in earth-dark air.”

Governor General’s Award winner Lorna Crozier’s What the Living Won’t Let Go also explores the shaping influence of the past on the present and future. For Spalding and Crozier alike, the past is weighty, both burden and gift that they must accept. As she has done in previous work, Crozier experiments here with the first-person lyric voice. Poems reverberate across the collection as meaning and substance are replayed from different perspectives. The result is a moving series of poems that resonate long after reading.

The poems in the first section – articulated by the same speaker – limn the landscape of childhood through the sharp lens of domestic images. Here, father and mother become human, vulnerable: “A man and woman lie in their own / whiteness, the brief balsam of the flesh. / Her hair is darker than I’ve seen it, / his less thin.” A precocious younger sister understands, in utero, her older brother’s jealousy when she becomes his sibling. And girlhood friendship – usually unrecorded – is recalled fondly: “Far from our mothers / I moved my lips to her voice / and we kissed each other / as snow, mouthing the words, / fell into the silences we made.”

Similar subjects are treated in the second section – subtitled “Another Family’s Story” – as Crozier disrupts continuity and foregrounds perspective by employing multiple lyric voices. These poems are told by an older sister, a younger sister, a son, a wife and mother, and a husband and father. Each speaker has a unique perspective on family life and reveals private, individual desires, which heighten tension within and across poems that generates potent sparks of meaning. The final section brings coherence to the many voices of the collection. Here, in poems especially rich in prairie imagery, the speaker roots herself and her reader in place, time, and a shared recognition “of the heart’s strange fondness / for what is lost.”

Well-known Vancouver poet Susan Musgrave, author of 20 books, reveals a darker sensibility than either Crozier or Spalding. As always, she writes from the edge of experience, where death looms large and sanity is threatened. This collection also comprises three sections where the landscapes of past, present, and future traverse. Like Crozier, Musgrave writes from multiple perspectives in lyrics that evoke a vast range of personal experience. She offers less guidance, however, than Crozier, whose titles provide the necessary poetic context. Musgrave prefers fragmentation over continuity and each poem obliges readers to reorient themselves anew to voice and circumstance. For all its wry humour and raw imagery, this is a disturbing volume.

Many of Musgrave’s poems concern the loss of children. In “The Moment,” where a mother fears that her young daughter may have been abducted and dismembered, the tone for the collection is set. The palpable terror of this first poem – although the end returns mother, father, and reader to simple, comfortable reality – dominates the work. In Musgrave’s diabolical world, children can be lost through various means: physical violation, drowning, mental illness, emotional and physical neglect, and merely by growing up. Often elegiac, these poems lament “How small death seemed in her spinning sky. / How true the sound of our weeping.”

The gutsiness that has come to be associated with Musgrave is evident in poems that protest life’s inequities. Difficulties are faced squarely, however, as speakers come to the lucid realization that they are but amateurs in the art of day-to-day living. Out of private struggles with alcohol, drugs, and sex emerges the hard-won knowledge that “something glorious comes,” even in the moment of death. But unlike Spalding and Crozier, whose work moves toward light, Musgrave’s vision remains persistently dark. When light flares – in comic and redemptive moments that punctuate her verse – it quickly fades.