Elegy. Poetry’s core force of propulsion and meaning it would seem to me, and funerals, memorials or other spaces of mourning the places where the poem rises into its essential nature. So many ways to elegize and two recent books of Canadian poetry, the first by Joe Denham (Nightwood Editions, 2015) and the latter by Sandy Shreve (& her father, Jack, Oolichan Books, 2015) offer the long poem and the found collage as modes of remembering.
Denham is another of our brilliantly-eared and under-acknowledged poets. His poetry has engaged persistently with the rigors of the sea and its labours, in the vein of Tim Bowling, but with perhaps a deeper emphasis on sound. This slim but intense 100 stanza poem enlarges the stage of Denham’s life drama, all the details of his job, wife, children, dog, home, landscape and so forth, sprouting like beautiful, challenging blooms from the painfully soiled foundation of the twenty year ago loss of his friend, Nevin Sample, who killed himself in the woods after holding up a small credit union.
I have two minor critiques of Denham’s ambitiously exquisite piece that recollects such poets to me as James Pollock and Richard Greene and such books as Dionne Brand’s Inventory or Mark Strand’s Dark Harbour. One is that I truly wanted more about Nevin in it, a man described on the back cover as “non-violent, caring [and] intelligent,” epithets I couldn’t really access in the material itself, beyond splintered glimpses like “kindness alive as your eyes were,” memories shattered relentlessly by the way he “slid [his] finger over that trigger.” Perhaps this is how the fullness of recalling is occluded by tragedy. But still, I yearned to know him a little better and thus feel for his loss more rupturingly.
My second critique is only that, amid Denham’s emotionally potent crafting of experience, he sometimes slips into a spoken-word style, rhymy-chiminess that doggerels the moment in lines like: “It’s the key to the great inner truth/that’ll set your soul free and earn me a weekly early primetime/on the O network, resplendent with props from Queen O (MG!)/herself”. That’s key/tree/me/wee(kly) and G for rhymes in the span of three lines. Over-slay to this ear! Especially given the fact that Denham more often writes with deliciously moving dignity. Take his paean to his wife for instance in this stanza: “My love,/the lines that haunt your hands and face….hold fast to me, I won’t waver. We’re/nowhere, together…there’s a flock of ghosts perched on my carved-out Helicon chest/and I can’t rise up from this long and fitful sleep.” It’s a gorgeous, heart-wracking poem. I’m going to be reading it again.
Sandy Shreve’s (Jack Shreve’s) book also contains what seems to be Denham’s favorite word, “focsle” and circles around a life on the sea, most directly her father’s ambivalent but eager relationship to it and the men he worked with when he was employed as a deck hand on a freighter in 1936 at the age of 21. More homage than overt elegy, Shreve’s act of creating mostly form poems from fragments of her father’s journal is still an elegiac intent. Form literally elevates content in this series of collaborations from beyond the grave between parent and child, and amongst genres.
Shreve is a master of the villanelle in particular, turning the details of her father’s rough diary into the sleekness of the rolling, circular, repeating form: “I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day/the “storm petrels” I saw yesterday lived up to their name/ and we’re rolling all over the ocean./We got that damned rice for dessert, and stewed prunes/but the officers got apple dumplings and fancy biscuits/I wonder what’s going on in the world to-day.” Landscape; diet; hierarchies, all rendered more potent by the echoing line. Shreve turns the mere listing of numbers: “Called at 6…making about 7 knots…course changed to N 25E about 11 pm last night” into the yumminess of poetry, thereby enfleshing the bones of her father’s humdrum daily routine. His suffering with the heat, maggots in the food, and dirty work on deck are palpable, the trailing off ellipses in the line, “I never in all my life….” managing to tell so much of the wearying tale by remaining unsaid. The reader really obtains a solid sense of Shreve’s father and his salty milieu through her steadfast attention to transforming material into melody.