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Thaw
by Margaret Avison
Sticky inside their winter suits the Sunday children stare at pools in pavement and black ice where roots of sky in moodier sky dissolve. An empty coach train runs along the thin and sooty river flats and stick and straw and random stones steam faintly when its steam departs. Lime-water and licorice light wander the tumbled streets. A few sparrows gather. A dog barks out under the dogless pale pale blue. Move your tongue along a slat of a raspberry box from last year's crate. Smell a saucepantilt of water on the coal-ash in your grate. Think how the Black Death made men dance, and from the silt of centuries the proof is now scraped bare that once Troy fell and Pompeii scorched and froze. A boy alone out in the court whacks with his hockey stick, and whacks in the wet, and the pigeons flutter, and rise, and settle back. -- From Winter Sun and The Dumbfounding, Poems 1940-66, by permission of McClelland & Stewart. -*** Margaret Avison's poems have a quality of being larger than themselves that draws me to them again and again. They are never mere personal narratives, clever thoughts, or showy prose dressed up as poems; they are often difficult, but they intrigue, and even at their most opaque they address the reader with a peculiar intimacy, an invitation to share a vision.

Thaw is Avison at her most accessible. The language and imagery, the loosely rhymed quatrains, are familiar, unintimidating. The picture they paint is nostalgic and almost iconically Canadian, with its train tracks along the river and its hockey- stick-wielding boy.

How vividly the details evoke the idleness of a Sunday of spring melting: Overdressed children, sweating in winter wear, "stare" as if stunned at sky-reflecting pools that weren't there yesterday; the steam of a passing train is echoed by the steaming of debris on the tracks after it is gone. The streets are "tumbled," a word we associate with unmade beds, evoking the untidiness winter leaves in its wake. Sparrows, a barking dog, that "pale pale blue" of lengthening afternoons: random impressions contribute to a mood of dreamy introversion.

Seasonal change takes us back in time. The first breath of spring conjures all springs past: adults remember their childhood, children their earlier childhood. Avison moves from her leisurely camera-pan of the scene to a sequence in which she invites us to be children ourselves: tasting a residue of summer as we lick "the slat/ of a rasberry box from last year's crate," smelling wet coal ash under a "saucepantilt of water."

We need not remember coal stoves to appreciate how the melancholy smell of wet ashes might trigger thoughts of Pompeii, of the unearthing of lost cities we learned about in our history books. Thaw, too, unearths residues, Avison implies; and out in the court, a solitary boy broods on all this, "whacking in the wet" with his hockey stick while the pigeons -- like the "silt of centuries" -- are disturbed only momentarily before they "settle back."

I love the way the accents in the last stanza reproduce the boy's dogged yet random swings: "whacks" and again "whacks," "wet," "flutter," "rise," "back." Robyn Sarah is a Montreal poet. Her most recent collections are The Touchstone (1992) and Questions about the Stars (1998).

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