A Trio of Hauntings: Anne-Marie Turza, Brenda Leifso and Alice Major’s New Poetry Collections

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Haunted, yes. I was. By all three of these collections in a range of ways, Turza’s debut, Leifso’s second and a further piece de resistance from Major’s melding pen. Turza due to her skeletally surreal texts; Leifso for her prophetic, vatic voice and Major for how she fuses the teleological and emotional into an architectonics of being alive. Italo Calvino, Robert Bringhurst and Loren Eisely coupled with George Herbert are some of the echoes I hear in these three important books.

Anne-Marie Turza’s book, The Quiet (Anansi, 2014) is an unsettling journey through a mostly-frozen landscape in which Roman-numeralled passages named after the title alternate with icy lyrics contained in two sections: “Not Mine, Not Anyone’s” and “Other Buzzing Passage.” These pieces, taken in totality, are mostly scores for acedia, the apocalypse of the spirit. Apart from the three pieces on Levin from Anna Karenina and brief mentions of real-life characters like Satie and Satchel Paige, the sketched sensibility is that of anonymity, erasure, loneliness. “The Quiet” movements are gently nightmarish, each fragment independent, and some feeling insufficient, but taken together, serving as tenuous building blocks for a creepy wall. The two sequences of lyrics then elaborate on these echoey chambers, poems such as “Levin Hunting” (“the rain’s blether grows louder, a gallop/of hard consonants”), “Black Cap Winter” (“No one asks what I believe. And I would not say very loudly/I believe in ice, in ice only”) in the first part, or in the second, “Levin in Love” (“a pigeon, fluttering its wings in the commonplace, the snow/glittering, extraordinary”) and the exquisite longest poem in the book, “Other Buzzing Passage” (“acid drip dripping in the sure black/at the back of the fissure”), particularly hold these trembling reverberations, Turza’s collection becoming a de Chirico room of disruptive aural artifacts that linger, eerily, in the psyche.

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With the most disturbing cover of the three (the bottom half of a doll’s head, baby lips in fossil-rictus), Brenda Leifso’s Barren the Fury (Pedlar Press, 2015) sets one up for Biblically-proportioned traumas. Even less than the Turza, I was scarcely able to mark individual pieces for mention, the mood so potent a force that one ends up simply flowing with the simmering river of it. Like the Turza though, Leifso also returns to motifs, titles (The Beginning, Conception, Noah) and temporalities (“on the seventh day,” “the eighth day we wake,” “On the fifteenth day, I bleed”). The effect is incantatory, a chant from another country and time, a sonic and spiritual quest for the “Her” at the core of it all, the thread coursing through it of violence against women and thus the land and thereby women in an endlessly deracinating cycle. Listen to strains of her terror: “Quiet nights/I thought I was the last one left in the world”; “salt eating sores on my thighs/seaweed rank” ; “There is no one out there. I’ve said it before” and from one of the few self-contained poems, Stillborn: “In this caverned bed, I inhaled/the rind of your head, the inner blood of its crowning/as I reached down to cup the cosmos in my hands.” A sensibility akin to WS Merwin’s resonates. While not always succeeding in steering free of cliche (soft breast, pull the blinds, ragged breathing), Leifso overall offers sonorous rupture and succor in ripely biting lines like: “Once, I believed grief was a ship hung around the neck/but now I know grief/floods the lungs like helium/tears the body softly apart.”

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Speaking of grieving, I found the most powerful section in Alice Major’s Standard Candles (The University of Alberta Press, 2015, and by the way, lovely assonantal title!) was the one inflected by parental loss, “Muscle of Difficulty” along with many of the pieces in the titular sequence, also scarred along their axis by mourning. Parts 8, 9, the astonishingly mathematically titled 11, and the culminating poem, “A prayer to bring you home,” all invoke the precisions of abandonment by those we love and are joined to by both blood and memory. Elegies of the adult orphan with intellectual tools at her disposal but still, nil answers. “The woman is left with ashes and no maps,” sighs one poem; another, “there is no point/where the dead can wait for her unchanged.” Easy consolation is never presumed, nor even desired, but Major’s play with scientific principles seems to proffer a certain assuagement, in recombinative energies, if not in the resolution of emptiness. Though occasionally Major’s hyper-researched style can appear a tad pedantic and her intensely ordered systems within sections, whether of gods or cosmologies or the seven deadly sins, may seem somewhat precious, her talent for formal structures, taut auralities and the unique and tremendously valid twinning of disciplines into a singing whole overrides the majority of resistances. I fell quite in love with much of Standard Candles actually – for the way it challenges, and perplexes, but mostly for how, amid theorems and allusiveness, it contains so much emotion, feelings yes, that are mainly (there must be an equation for this!) evoked through sound. As one small and perfect example, ala HD’s “Sea Rose,” I will leave you (not comfortless) with this lyric:

Bee Violet

What is this colour we cannot see

that marks a cross

at the flower’s nectared centre?

So conspicuous

to your hive of velvet saints

who then exhaust

their busy wings upon this

luminous boss

of bee violet nailed to the blossom –

a vivid gloss

upon the petal’s scripture

invisible to us.

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