First off, gorgeous books, design-wise, with stark-oceanic palettes, elegant fonts, and clever typography (the word “poems” lodged between girders or washing into a wave, the waves motif, in Harrison, echoed upon the textured papers). Such attentiveness to the book as intimate object d’art always increases the likelihood that my mind will yield more readily to its contents. Which was a necessary oomph for me in the case of Johanna Skibsrud whose poetry, initially, I find dry, long-winded, philosophically obese and otherwise lacking in an ear. The Description of the World is a sleeper, however, creeping up on this reader with its questings, and though I would almost have preferred this collection to have been meditative essays, ala Mary Ruefle, instead of a Jan Zwicky/Anne Compton-esque combo infused with extra didactic attar, I was gradually reeled in by the way Skibsrud turns so much scholarship (evidenced, perhaps excessively so, by the copious end notes) into distillations of mood, tones, tracings of ponderings in a de Chirico-sharp landscape.
While allusions to Neruda or Maestro Bartolome serve as direct sources, others, as in the pieces inflected by Lacan or Gorky or Turner, submerge their original inspiration in Skibsrud’s unique ability to draw out core statements, even truths, from these seeds like: “The eye, then, a longing,” or “they will dream that/they are trees, bearing only emptiness between them,” or “one wants to be split by love; made monstrous.” She certainly isn’t afraid of words such as soul, heart, faith, reason, desire. Which I can admire. If these abstractions are conjoined to the concrete (descriptor, emotive force) to compel the senses and gut along with the mind, then they can ring out powerfully as they do in the fish and banana stands, skull and trees of the stirring piece, “They will take my Island” or in “White Water Draw” where the reader is enabled to anchor herself in the particulars of a birthday, a baby, birds, before the poem unfolds, alternately expanding and dwindling, into the pedantic weight of “perhaps life itself occurs in this way…from what is visible and known…to the invisible motives and directions…into a moment of which we can only say afterward that it might never have arrived” etc and so forth. If not, we get tracts like “Hunters in the Snow” or “To be Born is the Supreme Loneliness” which almost reads like a cerebral Hallmark card: “To be born is to long, suddenly, to be born again…to be born is to discover and become one’s own limit.” All right and good but lacking in the viscerality and the rhythmical that poetry needs to become impactful, and singing. The Description of the World rather falls apart as an assemblage of poems to me, but nonetheless opens wide essential vistas in the brain where thought is suffused with both deep attention and tenderness.
“Within sight of the paradise/on the other side of criticism” reads one line in Richard Harrison’s poem, “The Golden Age” and, well, he’s almost going to receive his wish in this review, not because I’m proffering innocent gush here, but because my admiration of this collection stems from a widely-read and thus often demanding or discerning (and even at times cynical) set of personal tastes/predilections. Elegies for a father are not a new approach to poetry (Olds, Hall, Bly come instantly to mind), but Harrison’s book again underscores how it is the treatment of the subject in tone and form and the silences between that matters in vivifying material. Although there are also poems about the Alberta flood, his still-erotically engaged love for his wife and enjoying Slinkies and dinosaurs and Captain America films with his son, Harrison’s father’s illness, dementia, death and poetic afterlife are the waters on which this textual ship sails.
Perhaps the fact that his father loved and recited poetry and so the father/son bond existed on a possibly richer level than many, makes pieces like “This Son of York”, “Greatness”, “With the Dying of the Light,” “Spoken Word,” “Archive,” and the titular poem severely stirring. The warmth between them is tautly palpable as they utter Dylan Thomas together, even though the father’s voice is now the “soft song of sickened lungs.” And Harrison’s metaphors are not only often original but truly grounded in contextual appropriateness, as in the image of his dad’s “hands locked into each other like power shovels/tipped into the posture of the day’s last work” or even when he describes the teensy arms of the Tyrannosaurus Rex as resembling “the penis of a naked man in profile.” Manly vulnerabilities indeed. Three poems in a row actually made me catch my breathing; I felt that Dickinsonian ice and then even teared up, all signs of a rare submersion for me. Moving from “When: A love poem, ” where a middle-aged man finds he has become a flawed and wholly-adored muse who is finally able to give: “the weakness of [his] arms/the fold below [his] chin, the never smooth-again lines” to “Jack Kirby”, a piece that hunkers down inside a child’s connection to art when he was “young [and] nothing had died,” to “Superman”, a startling description of a dementia in which a person never feels full, his midnight father “opening and reopening the Arctic door of his insatiable want” while remaining his grown son’s hero, serves up a trajectory of key feelings embedded within solid lyrics sure of their measured line breaks.
On Not Losing my Father’s Ashes in the Flood, a book where only the political pieces are weaker, lapses arriving mostly when the authorial voice turns a little too self-consciously “poemy”, is a sequence threaded through with revelations like: “I need words close, as though I matter to them,/even though I don’t”, the dead father seen mourning his living son’s loss and the dying father becoming akin to a poem, his final act of grace, through which one can see “love in a new light.” Harrison has certainly delivered true infant gleamings of awe and sorrow in what is undoubtedly among the most searing poetry collections of 2016.