Books of Canadian poetry are often thematically structured or, if miscellanies, tend to adhere to fairly narrow ranges of subject matter: domesticity & family, work, personal tales of love & grieving. There seems to be a fear of political and historical material, especially when combined with more intimate poems within a single volume; it’s as if not only are poets afraid of sinking into the polemical but that they worry about simplifying and streamlining content in order to make their texts more accessible to the reader, and perhaps more marketable, at least in theory, for the publisher.
Steven Heighton doesn’t appear to concern himself with either source of anxiety and Canadian poetry is better for his form of lyrical courage. The writer of substance educates their reader, draws them into a fascination with subject matter they may never have previously considered compelling and does so with and through language. Heighton’s poems never slump wholly into rhetorical dryness or shriek into histrionic ranting because he has placed the music of words as his paramount concern and thus lets sound lead him into the heart of his necessary material.
Beginning with a poem that drops us into the hell of My Lai and concluding with a sequence of translations from writers as diverse as Borges and Wang Wei, pieces that Heighton humbly calls “Approximations,” Patient Frame takes the reader on a fiercely calm journey. There is an elegy for the poet Richard Outram (Outram Lake), a terse condemnation of religious pedophilia (You Know Who You Are) woven through with the beauty of Latinate musicality in words such as “lento” and “cantique,” and paeans to the home movies and books that mark memories of childhood or loss as in the moving love poem, “Reading the Saxon Chronicles in a Field Hospital, Kandahar.”
Patient Frame also offers haikus, ballads and litanies, Heighton being as interested in a palette of forms as he is in a multiplicity of subject matter. Trusting in his capacity to shape and voice his poems, his mastery buoyed by his facility with a range of genres from the novel to the essay, Heighton rarely falters. Looking closely at just one of his irregular haikus, “Ice Storm, Desert Lake”, we can hear his immense control over image and rhythm, all the more essential a skill in such compact forms:
“Seesaw sudden flight – this white-
tail buck, through hemlocks cased
in ice sarcophagi.”
The repetition of “s” sounds in each line, whether initial or internal, readily conveys the swishing escape of the fleeing buck, while curiously connecting the live animal with the environment it moves through, the seemingly inert hemlocks, bound as they are in their cold tombs, a comparison strengthened by the hard “ck” echoes between “buck” and “hemlocks” and the long “i” reverberations in “flight/white/ice/sarcophagi.” The dash, followed by a hyphen, also emphasizes the quick movement of the animal. The images are rendered vivid through Heighton’s precise attention to assonance, consonance, alliteration and line breaks.
While Heighton’s erudition is impressive and his allusiveness rich, what matters most in a book of poems should be the poet’s ear, and it is this capacity for a delicate and determined hearing of language that makes Patient Frame shine. Only rarely, as noted, does Heighton slip into didacticism as in the ponderous lines from “Sleeping on Water”;
“The rudder, torn from the boat, is free like the dead/not to steer but be borne” or closes a piece too obviously and thus leadenly, “Herewith I/submit my simple/prayer for Heather” (Prayer for Heather).
But when one is crossing vast territories of material and working with broad expanses of form, all from the fearless impulse to say something worthwhile (think of Robinson Jeffers for instance), such slippages are hard to avoid, and remain merely a small risk one should be willing to take to read as sonorous and significant a writer as Steven Heighton.