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Your Last Day on Earth

by Carla Hartsfield

Toronto poet Carla Hartsfield is a true Renaissance woman. Her biography states that she is, by turns, a poet, painter, songwriter, and classical/pop musician. Sometimes, as she demonstrates in her third collection of poetry, Your Last Day on Earth, she is all of the above. Her musical ear and artist’s eye influence every poem, sometimes deliberately, but more often simply through the rhythm of her language or the visual quality of her descriptions.

As one might surmise from the title, Your Last Day on Earth is, in spirit, an elegy – a lament for Hartsfield’s late father. Given that fact, one might expect the book to be largely melancholic in tone. But though she does occasionally fall into sentimentality, Hartsfield’s jarring juxtapositions of metaphysical images with slangy colloquialisms don’t allow much space for wallowing. In “In the Space That My Father Left” the poet sets her own spiritual loss in counterpoint against the many daily activities that become part of that loss: “And/with his body just inches away,/the space he has left/grows unfathomable.… The women polish furniture/and run their Hoovers…. This is how they mop up sorrow, with spongy J-cloths tossed into Hefty bags.”

This intermingled language of the spiritual and the everyday runs throughout the collection. In “The Clearing,” one of several poems in the collection about motherhood, Hartsfield undercuts the almost weepy sentimentality with an acerbic axiom: “I push it back in,/this anointing unfamiliar, too valuable and pure/for the initiate, his mother,/trembling in the nursery./That’s why I let the baby/do what he wants.”

This is the best feature of Hartsfield’s poetry – that she elevates these ordinary moments to the level of the extraordinary in the simple act of committing them to the page in an interesting way. Unfortunately, she has a tendency to then destabilize that very extraordinariness with language and phrasing that highlights just how ordinary these moments are.