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Review: Patient Frame, by Steven Heighton

For the last decade or so, I've been obsessed with the ethics of intervention - when is it necessary to get involved, to cross the border that separates my problems from yours?" - Steven Heighton, The Walrus

Kingston's Steven Heighton's fifth volume of verse, Patient Frame - preceded by the singularly arresting Stalin's Carnival or the equally extraordinary The Ecstasy of Skeptics - will leave readers breathless, no doubt because Heighton works (and plays) with words in wondrous ways few contemporary poets even dream of attempting, let alone conquering.

From its opening Credos (including the exemplary Breathe Like This) to its fifth and final sequence, Fourteen Approximations (a.k.a. what Erin Mouré might term "transelations" of Horace, Neruda, Borges, Mallarmé et al.), Patient Frame covers huge swaths of ethical and allusively intellectual ground in much the same way, say, that Valéry turned the art on its ear (and eye), scrutinizing poetry's form and structure to (almost always) stunning effect, or Rilke, perhaps, wrestling with minutiae, who often found his visions both clouded and, paradoxically, indescribably clarified. Consider Dream from Part 4 ( What Keeps You Here):

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Octaves woke him to dusk, not dawn - a woman under the sealed window, singing, woke him to sadness six years long, and lawns of broadloom, spilled wine, the small white pillows of sleeping pills. What is she singing now, where could this be? Should have begun life years ago instead of at some address to come (in a desert under a waif of moon) …

Whether magically realistic or realistically magical, Heighton's work deftly balances the complexities and contradictions of conscious existence to reinforce the notion that the only sensibly thoughtful aesthetic objective remaining resides in Conrad's profound understanding of restraint (adduced most tellingly in Heart of Darkness).

Thus, if Heighton's wordworkings occasionally wander a tad too close to the post-poetic trope or the embarrassingly mangled metaphoric fragmentation, these forgivable foibles pale in comparison with the substantial and suitably felicitous bulk of Patient Frame, its neo-classical principles - steeped in peripatetic poetics, best evidenced in the perfectly paced Found Lately Among the Effects of Catullus or impeccably shaped Baseball Game, Havana - solidly supported by its scrupulous attention to both proportion and decorum. (The poet's sense of humour may well come into play here, of course.)

Although never more viable or visible, poetry, that crossroad where the sacred and the secular intersect, inexplicably suffers from a dearth of work of value and worth (despite or perhaps because) the ever-dwindling readership for the most important art in our human universe increasingly finds itself supplanted by a surfeit of mediocre bluster and critically bankrupt me-me-meistic assessors incapable of getting to grips with the fact the art comes before self-promotion in the near-forgotten dictionary of the sublime.

Not so with Heighton's lovingly created and exquisitely communicated entries, thoughtfully arranged to effect integral impact through faultless strategies guaranteed to capture the attention of readers and, most prodigiously, to sustain the incremental momentum holding willing co-creators-by-proxy captive for the duration. A supremely cohesive and coherent performance, the poems speak to (or with) readers, a rare anomaly in these times, graphically demonstrating - via all available media - the once-hidden heart of darkness unimaginably rendered in both its compelling visual imagery as well as its devastatingly unforgettable musicality. Some write by eye, others by ear; it's a rare writer who manages to sustain an admixture of the two (not to mention an admirable touch of the tactile, too).

Tiny-puny peccadillo or over-the-top tongue-in-cheekiness aside, the talent and intuitive intelligence supporting this wordsmith's amazingly cogent contribution to our cultural texture proves, despite what we learn "from the new/ and uncomfortable angels," that with Heighton's songs, benedictions, meditations, psalms and lamentations, it remains possible for human beings to possess the potential "to breathe like this … to be absolved" - or, as the poet himself ruminates, to know "when is it necessary to get involved."

Contributing reviewer and In Other Words blogger Judith Fitzgerald lives in Northern Ontario's Almaguin Highlands. She is working on her 30th book, a poetry collection slated for release … eventually.

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