“indeterminacy is as fundamental a quality of the marginal as eccentricity” [Cole Swenson]
Robert Priest has long been a Toronto constant as a poet, writer and musician, but he operates, as diversely talented and non-academic creators do today, more from the margins. But if these edges are as rich as what he has produced are, then why care? The notion that poetry should stem only from one milieu or set of sources or a singular nod from a narrow clique is, frankly, gross. As icky as awards being shortcuts for thought in assessing what matters. And here, in his new release, If I Didn’t Love the River, Priest shows that not only can he return to the more familiar forms found in earlier books such as in two of my faves, Resurrection in the Cartoon and Reading the Bible Backwards (along with the inclusion of further brilliant aphorisms and puns such as those that make up The Time Release Poems), but he can also grow his oeuvre through experimentations in the sonnet, ghazal and villanelle as he continues to deepen his facility with satire and tenderness. A maxim in one of the final sequences, “Enlighteningment” twists the Shelley-an dictum to sum up the nitty-gritty reality that, for the most part, “Poets are the unacknowledged poets of the world.”
As I write this review, it is a day after my second father, the man I grew up with my whole life, died and I’m crying. I know Robert will understand as he too has experienced a range of griefs. And these feed, unabashedly, into his poems in a way that certain kinds of readers have been trained to cringe at these days when all art must be about referentiality, stuff, the abstract, the impressing of others in a niche. There are few poets who can articulate love, loss and the political like Priest. And certainly not in one book. The core of his work is to make connections, to underscore the way words echo other words and how inhuman affections and the need for justice form the basis for human bonds. As the titular poem emphasizes so beautifully, “If I didn’t love the river/how could I say I love you.” I hear traces of Neruda, Donne, Milton Acorn, Denise Levertov, Joe Rosenblatt. Priest segues readily within the barometers of the heart, from metaphysical sonnets like On Star Divination (“We guide them home when they are lost, our love so luminous/they can’t avert their eyes. And yes, oh yes – stars wish on us”) to sonnets on the corrupt state of our society as in Egalitarian or On the Way to the Walbran Forest. He is relentlessly adept at extended metaphor and reversing our typical concepts of culturally-accepted notions as in the social media “like” in the piece, The Like Process or most powerfully at the centre of this collection, the contemporary obsession with social distancing urged upon us by the pandemic, in Infection Protection for Murderers (I laughed aloud at lines like “Whenever possible,/murder from behind to prevent victims screaming directly into your face”) or the disease of cancel culture in which words or texts are often eradicated due to a lazy, enraged detachment from their context or multiplicity as in “Help!” where the nixing of the noxious phrase, “the help,” leads to no one capable of responding in case of emergency.
I was also moved by his piece about being “way too old/for the trees,” his incredible-dedication-to-his wife prose poem “My Women Named Marsha Kirzner Thing,” his anaphoric Sonnet of Many Skins (“A flag skin rippling out for any wind/A paper skin whose symbols I transcribe”) and his ars poetica of Over-Reacher (“I had to sing, I simply had no choice”). Of course, at times, Priest over-extends his metaphors or the recursiveness becomes tedious, and damn are the most horrendous griefs terribly difficult to write about (a poem – Everyone Knows Where They Were When They First Heard About the Death of the World – that possibly combines most of his talents in humour, satire, affection, metaphor and passion for social justice sings to the heart of this struggle with images such as, “The moon still/circling up there as/though the world hadn’t died/strangers holding strangers/animals howling in the darkness/How will we go on without the world?”) Indeed. A basic truth that politicians, billionaires, and other dictators rarely seem to ask themselves. But the poet does. The real poet does. Thank you Robert.