After one has abandoned a belief in God," Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) noted in Adagia, "poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption." Perhaps that notion most economically telegraphs the direction, contents and concerns central to Sudburian Margaret Christakos's freshest poetry collection yet, Welling, a fiercely compassionate assemblage distingué.
Now a Torontonian, Christakos celebrates the art of living better linguistically with verve and moxie to spare. ("Don't you dare!") At the same time, she reanimates universal truths closest to the core of that conceptual matter in a masterful blend of lyrical narration suffused with jazzy-bluesy syncopations, near-staccato undercurrents of an intransigent feu de joie and jarringly mellifluous meditations upon motherhood, solitary self-pleasuredom and the ubiquitous glaze of our global citizenry's 21st-century malaise.
Predominantly focused upon tentative explorations and investigations into an endlessly fascinating conundrum on a sliding sidereal scale, Welling embraces cultural gutters, familial struggles, emotional ghettos, history's clutters and generous splashes of a sublunary world seemingly set down in casual (although sublimely confident) lines strewn across scenescapes in keeping with its oracular mythos.
The work's dominant hues - indigo, mauve, slate - primarily colour Welling's implied ethos, best expressed, say, by Gertrude Stein: "Literature - creative literature - unconcerned with sex, is inconceivable."
Thus, despite occasional marbled streaks of sooty grey granite, suggestive of luminous resignation complementing shades of fuchsia, amethyst, scarlet, aquamarine, titian, chartreuse and vermilion, a yellow fog (or red weather) all but blankets this construct's ever-tilting planet, increasingly (and alarmingly) carrying on much too efficiently without us. (Think Matthew Arnold's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar"; or, equally, what Charles Olson both preached and attempted to practise in terms of his ground-breaking theories surrounding "composition by field.")
Divided into seven disparate - although intimately connected - series of varying tones and consistent technical expertise, Welling presents ultra-condensed slo-mo sequences that scan the depths of readers' heart-scrims while roughly (yet admirably) limning the horizon of that which holds or unfolds. Erin Mouré or Gerard Manley Hopkins meets Daphne Marlatt on bp nichol Lane? Sounds about right.
Here, in Welling, Christakos effortlessly sails through a cautionary slip so unique, so wonkily boffo, its entries sing upon the page. (Recited aloud, each enkindles associations that no other poet currently making and shaping work in this century comes close to matching.) Consider Wellington, the collection's closer and raison d'être (since its author, born in '62 and raised in the Big Nickel's Wellington Heights neighbourhood, heads "home"), a tightly wound and regimental chaos (coming, as it delicately does, after a ribald yet rapturous transmission, the problem of confessionality, elevating women's pleasurable self-satisfactions):
You would have to desire Wellington, or else despise a flat trek from waking to sleep … At least half the time everything is utterly downhill. As any pessimist knows, uphill's no better. Both suck trip- ly, sounds unglued in your mouth, Wellington. Unloveable ones are the ones I love, did you hear? More than sound sticks in me. Eyes do, and voice's arrow, and skin.
Long a restless renegade (or rare angel) in search of a worthy vessel (she lands and commands with Welling), Christakos clearly honed and clarified her craft over several collections, from 2002's Excessive Love Prosthesis and Sooner (2005) to What Stirs (2008); consequently, this pièce de résistance, a spectacular achievement enhanced by a formidable talent coming to fruition, contains some of the finest poems to appear in print in recent memory. Prelude alone justifies the work's publication, given the depth and breadth of vision and precision everywhere evidenced in its outstandingly hymnastic exultations:
I like the quiet when we're separated out like this from humanity's parched lung. Her legs were sore from the memory of good sex which went bad then, toward corrupt church society. His gaze could not solve much, after undeniable sweetness.
The consummate perfectionist's exhaustive attention, everywhere on dazzling display (re-turning to unforgettable - albeit unforgiving - vistas), felicitously recasts her narrator's early years and makes of Welling a journey not unlike Derek Walcott's Another Life or Wordsworth's Prelude. In revisiting indelible landscapes culled from recollections scattered across molten slag-flame and rock-solid retrospections, Christakos embarks upon a voyage to successfully retrace and resurrect the past with a healthy splash of near-surrealist wonder and wild woundedness. In preparation for the revolution's conclusion by design? Hardly. Look no further than Evolution: "My child is a child of the revolution/ destined to fail. Every flaccid zeitgeist terribly/ forgets her simple passions: leaf, twig,/ row of pebbles."
Not only does Christakos reel in a stun-dazzling sui generis representation of memory's kaleidoscopic slipstream, she also pulls together tangled but true tributaries and intertwingled (neologism courtesy of James Joyce) strands reinforcing Stevens's redemptive belief (underscored by mauve-magenta funks snaking their way through so-so whatism inexorably yielding to an exacting geometry of resolute benediction). Time stands still in the refulgent consciousness of the instantaneous; space collapses; and, in the words of one of the poet's key influences, Gwendolyn MacEwen, a dozen stars go nova … just like that!
An accomplished yet intransigently tricksy wordworker for life, Christakos wisely hews, with unswerving urgency and subtle majesty, to William Carlos Williams's dictum, "If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem."
It's a pleasure.
A Poetry Fellow of the Chalmers Arts Foundation, contributing reviewer and In Other Words blogger Judith Fitzgerald lives in Northern Ontario's Almaguin Highlands. She is working on her 30th volume, a poetry collection slated for release in the near future.