To mark National Poetry Month, In other Words is being guest-edited by rob mclennan. Throughout April, rob will present the work of dozens of poets he thinks deserve readers' attention, as seen through the eyes of their fellow poets.
Beyond the jokes that inevitability arise about April Fool's Day or the Eliot-derived comment that "April is the cruelest month," I've always assumed that April was chosen as National Poetry Month because of its association with spring. In the Romantic tradition, spring is the season of lyric poetry, with its connotations of renewal, regeneration, and birth. Metaphors of inspiration, creation, and novelty are like buds pushing through winter's last frost. Spring never gets old
Yet there is no reason why spring must be the sole season of poetic creation: Each season has elements which might be applied to the act of writing. To do so, the poet must subvert readers' expectations and invert aspects of the traditional lyric. Jennifer LoveGrove creates such surprise through unexpected associations and metaphors in her poem, The Skater ( I Should Never Have Fired the Sentinel, ECW, 2005).
The wind lowers its cracked hand, swipes sap from the trees-they shiver a new hue. High Park valleys ripple red, orange, gold sinews. October's muscle.
Summer's drowned in a lake of flattened beach balls. I can breathe. Fall crackles into focus, the rinks spread their doors wide.
I join adults in borrowed helmets, new bruises and kids' skates. The ice is bone-smooth, a glowing glacier.
I grind into it, calligraphic - etching portents - a flourish of snow howls in chorus.
LoveGrove takes the traditional nature sonnet and reimagines it within an urban setting (Toronto's High Park), offers modern uses for nature (the frozen "pond" is now a place for recreation and physical activity rather than a site for Romantic contemplation), and finally suggests that winter, not spring, is the true season of poetic creation.
In a traditional sonnet, the opening stanzas introduce a problem, which is then contemplated in the next stanzas, before coming to some sort of resolution in the final stanza or couplet. LoveGrove's sonnet does not follow standard English or Italian sonnet forms, as it lacks a strict metrical or rhyming scheme. Hers is closer to the indigenous sonnet-form of Milton Acorn, the Jackpine Sonnet, which is much more "free" than its European predecessors.
But LoveGrove does not completely abandon the formal aspects of the sonnet. A problem is introduced in the first stanza: How do we contend with the end of summer's leisure when faced with a more violent and destructive season that attacks with a "cracked hand" that "swipes sap" through its "October muscle"?
In a traditional sonnet, there is usually a turning point, sometimes called a "volta": The poem changes tone or perspective in order to start moving to a solution. Here, the volta comes almost immediately in the second stanza with the appearance of the first person pronoun and the speaker's contention that, despite the asphyxiation of summer ("drowned in a lake of flattened/ beach balls"), the poet herself "can breathe." Now, just like the leaves of fall, she "crackles into focus."
Late fall and early winter become times for transformation and renewal - not spring. In the third stanza, youth and age mix with "adults in borrowed helmets" wearing "new bruises and kids' skates." Winter's ice is normally associated with death, but here it appears "bone-smooth," vitally "glowing" with life. LoveGrove says, "Playing hockey as a team is a break from being trapped in your own mind; it can be rejuvenating to leave the realm of the cerebral and focus on something primarily physical and group-oriented for a change." The poem was written as she re-learned to skate - the childhood pastime is being rejuvenated by the adult.
Winter is not only the season of rebirth - it also signals the birth of the act of writing itself. The last stanza contains images that connect the movement of skating across the ice with textual inscription: the poet is "grinding into it, calligraphic - etching portents - a flourish." The poet's sense of her aesthetic potential is awakened and the normally mute landscape speaks as the "snow howls in chorus." LoveGrove has said that hockey is the first sport she has attempted "since fifth grade soccer," and in these last lines, I think of her first novel, in progress - the poet reborn as novelist.
Perhaps LoveGrove is gesturing towards another poem entitled The Skater by one of the first recognized Canadian poets on record, Charles G.D. Roberts (1860-1943). In Roberts's text, the poet skates to explore nature, becomes frightened by its majesty and overwhelming power (the Romantic Sublime), and flees back to the safety of "civilization." With Jennifer LoveGrove, in contrast, we see that nature, even in its more violent or cold aspects, is always a potential source of transformation: both personal and poetic.
Photo of Jennifer LoveGrove by Sharon Harris