When Soraya Peerbaye first read her poem Girl, Rabbit at a launch a few years ago, the strange blend of furry innocence and raw sexual aggression she wrote into the story of a pubescent girl's relationship with her pet left her audience dumbstruck. Girl, Rabbit reappears now in Peerbaye's first book, Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names. In her debut, Peerbaye demonstrates the same acute sense of the interdependence between the beautiful and the brutal that made that early poem so compelling.
- Reviewed here: The Rose Concordance, by Angela Carr; Red Nest, by Gillian Jerome; Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names, by Soraya Peerbaye; Pause for Breath, by Robyn Sarah
Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names opens with a suite of "curios for K." - love songs that honour Peerbaye's father's French and Creole roots, then moves into a series of "zistoires" (Creole for "stories"). The zistoires capture the intimate moments of the poet's family during her youth, as they deal with currents of illness and depression. The final section, from which the book takes its title, is an extended long poem chronicling the poet's ship journey with her brother from the tip of Argentina to Antarctica. Here Peerbaye weaves documentary moments of natural observation - of icebergs, seabirds, whales - together with a meditation on the history of Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city.
Peerbaye's sensibility is environmentally elegaic, seeing an aching beauty in things not-quite-yet-lost. Her English verse is coloured with notes of the dying and marginalized languages Yaghan and Creole, the unfamiliar words like birdcry against the larger tone of the book. Against the huge groans of calving glaciers, Peerbay notices the sparkle of a linguistic element that can capture the ethos of an entire culture: "Their grammar integrated perspective. Your name would be different if I called to you from a canoe, or from the shore; your name would be different if earth or water lay between us."
Peerbaye sets herself apart from many other new poets by extending her reader's sympathies beyond Canada's languages and geographies. Tempering her awe of the Antarctic landscape with a clear-eyed attention to the harrowing and sometimes shameful histories by which the continent's invaluable secrets have become known, Peerbaye offers her postcolonial vision of the Antarctic up to the institutional and policy mind signalled in her address to "The Committee."
Robyn Sarah, the veteran among this group of poets, has produced another fine example of lyric craftsmanship in her ninth collection, Pause For Breath. The pause Sarah meditates on is nothing less than the brief time of breathing between one's entry into the world and one's exit from it. Her poems demonstrate the mindfulness of one attending to the quality of each inspiration and exhalation onto the page.
Poems in the first section, "A Place of Ruin," are deeply present to the emotional tone of the globalized world.
Something fell. Where? It seemed to be in the house. Downstairs? I heard - I thought I heard something fall.
"Was it our face? The towers? An empire?" asks Sarah. Her attention registers and expresses a collective desires, under the pulse of global flows of goods and information, "the wish to begin again, like a bankrupt, with nothing but a clean slate." The characteristic generosity with which Sarah experiences the world make her moments of cultural critique all the more forceful, and this first section convinces with its striking moments of frustration set within wisdom.
The later sections of Pause for Breath return us to a more peaceful mindset. In these later poems, her expert workmanship is indisputable, but they do feel like little prisms of light crafted from the space of a spiritual retreat, rather than a spiritual engagement, with the world. Sarah can indeed hear snowflakes kissing her hat, but where she goes emotionally to do so seems a rarefied place, a place from which she "gazes down ... through a wall of glass" on a man drinking on a bench and muses that "this, too, is a life." The book as a whole perhaps reflects a potential pitfall in the deep-breathing seeker's quest - that the turn toward reflective solitude can often risk an indulgent withdrawal. Sarah captures the note herself, from another angle, in her closing poem, which muses on her own reaction to the wind of a bee's wings: "A pagan restlessness in my past / makes me conservative."
Gillian Jerome achieves, in her debut Red Nest, a generous engagement that does not close its beauty or inspiration off from crud-in-the-kitchen-sink realness. Jerome, whose first (non-fiction) book gave space to voices of people from Vancouver's downtown east side, speaks in a poetic voice that blends similar impulses of warmth and witness, a voice that is both maternal and civic, tender and yet alive to the full spectrum of city character. Jerome writes of her neighborhood: "The lake is a swamp / of syringes and cars / crows occupy / hydro lines ... mothers pluck their babes from the lake / carry them over their shoulders home."
Red Nest is a diffuse book, a loose collection of moments rather than a book with a concrete strategy, but one that builds up a sense of the fecundity of daily experience, and of a cleanness of spirit - a cleanness not in the tidied way of a gleaming kitchen counter, but in the way fresh blood, or old compost, is clean. In one long poem, Jerome threads a "serious maternal light" through a landscape both suburban and mythic; in another, she makes the colour red do work as sex, as panic, as anus and as birdwing. Jerome's touch with her personifications and wordplay is so subtle that her effects are often cumulative, her devices only revealing themselves upon the pleasure of rereading.
Montreal poet Angela Carr's second book, The Rose Concordance, is about as self-consciously strategic as poetry can get. "This book was conceived as an allegorical mall with a central fountain and concordance corridors leading away from it in several directions," Carr explains in one of the text's appendices. (There are three appendices, one of which is a cool "remix" of lines sampled out of the main body of the work.) A complex and demanding read, The Rose Concordance takes up avant-garde poet Lisa Robertson's declaration that "every culture is the terrible gush of its splendid outward forms" and responds to her "open competition for the synthesis of new fountains."
Drawing inspiration from the medieval French poem Roman de la Rose and the work of cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, Carr's book is a poetic theorizing of beauty and form, tacitly asking what it is - energy? conciousness? imagination? - that flows as matter into forms as diverse as fonts or bodies, or words, or that pools into discrete emotions, or freezes into argumentative stance.
Carr's work succeeds where so much poetry aiming for this degree of theoretical sophistication fails through its formal understanding that the way poetic language makes a reader feel their own body, or experience the "bodiliness" of language. Carr achieves an exquisite balance of sensual fleshiness, confession and conceptual abstraction: "I mistook love for an ending / An ending love for a mistake," she writes, then quickly follows with, "It is not easy to maintain the position of a barrette. If it is heavy with ornamentation it slides down. It resembles a philosophical proof loaded with metaphor." It's a rare pleasure to read a poet who pushes, with both reverence and humour, the limits of theoretical rigour and yet is brave enough to write a pink book about roses, capital-L love, and barrettes.
Sonnet L'Abbé is the author of two books of poetry, A Strange Relief and Killarnoe. She lives and writes in Vancouver.