John Pass: Forecast (Selected Early Poems, 1970-1990, Harbour Publishing, 2015) and Rosemary Griebel: Yes (Frontenac House, 2011

Re-releasing one’s formative collections in a Selected Early Works is a risk as, even in the realm of poetry, the movement of the reader when they follow a particular writer is almost always towards the progression and evolution of their style, form and subject matter. This may be a facetious pursuit, besides the point, or it may be crucial, key, as in Al Purdy’s oeuvre. With a poet like John Pass from BC’s Sunshine Coast, who frequently composes in sequences, his whole books serving as potent visions, it’s a trickier proposition. Despite holding this stance, I was nonetheless grateful to read certain pieces and sections that I would otherwise have been denied, as the manuscripts they come from are out of print or otherwise unavailable.


“Periwinkle” was the first piece that haunted my ear with its alliterative contrasts of “as I’m in the thick of it, thinning/the raspberries,” followed by “Sun in the Afternoon (for my mother),” especially how it opens with: “What birds this sudden brightness introduces.” Pass obviously has a rhythmic sensibility and his poems are best read aloud for their philosophical sonorities as their forms are rarely that satisfying (as in metrically or sensible pattern-wise) to the eye. The strongest lyric part is “The Crosstown Bus,” as in the poems “Lights” and “Riddle,” poems of a young man in the new stages of love and its learnings, educating himself on the spelling of “the word caress” and how passion can lead to loss. Most compelling perhaps (and the only sequence left wholly intact) is “The Arbitrary Dictionary,” which is a series of poems spurred on by words, and a method that encourages Pass’s natural playfulness. Take “Fret” for instance, these two stanzas: “of some Castilian woe, notes/to the latticed interior/light. To play out anxiety:…/Weep guitar,/Each tear’s tiny erosion/home against the keystone.” Here, meaning (and that usually means the delectable quotidian in Pass) takes a rumble seat to sound and if one just goes with the flood of his Stevensian surrealities and even, Mother Goosian rhymes on occasion, this sequence is quite the invigorating bugle blast. The last two words of Forecast were also worth waiting for: “Anachronistic. Bitten.”


Rosemary Griebel, Calgary poet, in Yes, draws from the purest of Anglo Saxon vocables (moon, air, snow, dark, lips, dreams, rain, love) to sketch the essence of a landscape’s and time’s mood. Although there is an intermittently poignant sequence on Helen Keller, and a few echoing the Bible or Basho, most of these poems stem from memory, desire, aging, grief. There are a plethora of gorgeous poems: “My Father Comes Back,” “Summer, Our Bodies,” “Clam Digging in the Battle River,” “White Pelicans,” “On First Hearing a Recording of Virginia Woolf,” and “The Body,” among others. Even her pieces of subtle disruption like “The Pigs” are beautifully laden with sensory detail: “Maybe it was the way we became animals…/I loved the soft light of the pigs’ eyes when they looked up/from the trough…/Aren’t we all born/into a trust with this world? And with what measure/and certitude do we get into sorrow’s truck and ride.”


Occasionally though, Griebel falls into an overly pat, precious tone, a risk stemming from what I call the “Crozier-mode” of composing the world, where nearly-nonsensical images like “his hand weeping across the page” are written or stanzas of lulling meaninglessness such as, “You were given desire,/sweet darkness of the body,/white hum in the bone.” These moments can seem emotional or mystical but read more closely they contain little but a kind of vacuous sigh. Fortunately, Griebel steers wider of this tendency in most poems, and her facility with her forms on the page where each line is so gracefully measured, is delicious. “I love this world. And I will wait here for you” she announces with the lilting confidence of a Mary Oliver, a Rilke. Ending as Joyce’s Ulysses does with “yes” how could Griebel’s collection not be gifted to the reader like a bouquet of affirming breaths.


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