In the Palm of Her Hand

The ex­quis­ite oeu­vre of Robyn Sarah

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Anita La­hey

The ex­quis­ite oeu­vre of Robyn Sarah

My favourite poem by Robyn Sarah is a sin­gle sen­tence run­ning in short, jagged lines half­way down the page. Called “Echoes in Novem­ber,” it starts by re­mind­ing the reader that “cor­re­spon­dences are ev­ery­where” and that things can “bor­row / essence not their own,” be­fore vividly de­pict­ing a kitchen scene in which leaves streak­ing past a win­dow are jux­ta­posed against a fig­ure chop­ping vegeta­bles. The knife wielder then pauses to savour:

...a stub of veg­etable not des­tined for the pot, and faintly tast­ing at the back of the palate the ghost of a rose in the core of the car­rot.

The sim­plic­ity and di­rect­ness of that ex­em­plary end­ing is why Sarah’s work stands apart from much of con­tem­po­rary Cana­dian po­etry. The mo­ment is tan­gi­ble, the “cor­re­spon­dence” be­tween rose and car­rot evoca­tive and star­tling. In eleven or­di­nary words — twelve syl­la­bles — the fi­nal two lines re-en­act Sarah’s en­counter with the mys­tery of “a stub / of veg­etable” in a way that al­lows the reader to feel a sim­i­lar cross-cur­rent of awe.

Sarah grew up in Mon­treal dur­ing the ’50s and ’60s where, as a young woman, she stud­ied phi­los­o­phy, mu­sic, and English. Mon­treal is where she still lives and where her po­etry is fiercely rooted. Her streetscapes bus­tle with the vi­brancy of that cos­mopoli­tan city: her nar­ra­tors tromp its side­walks and haunt its bal­conies. To read Sarah’s po­ems is to en­ter a time­less world of leaves, rain, snow, wind, win­dows, rooms, side­walks, street lamps, sun, shadow, and hats. She writes plainly, with the reader al­ways in mind. Her aim, she has said, is to cre­ate po­ems that “res­onate from” her ex­pe­ri­ence while leav­ing “room for a reader to hear his or her own ex­pe­ri­ence.” Sarah’s en­tire ca­reer is an an­ti­dote to the per­va­sive anx­i­ety about po­etry’s in­com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity. Her po­ems won’t at­tempt any im­promptu lin­guis­tic moves. They won’t tie your in­tel­lect in knots. They won’t go rogue with syn­tax nor will they OD on jaunty col­lo­qui­alisms. In fact, they won’t try any­thing trendy — noth­ing “new,” noth­ing in.

What a Sarah poem will do is in­habit a change in at­mos­phere, both in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal. Sarah waits to be caught un­awares by a frag­ment of un­con­ven­tional or un­der­stated beauty — such as an earth­worm (“Pink as dis­carded chew­ing gum / it comes to the sur­face in rain”) or a wall (“I like a white wall, / a good lamp, shad­ows / of leaves, I can live with these / a long time”). Then she does her level best to re­veal, in un­adorned lan­guage, her al­tered per­spec­tive. “All my cer­tain­ties, if I ever had any,” she writes at one point, “are out the win­dow now.” The ma­jor­ity of Sarah’s po­ems per­form this jour­ney in a few tidy stan­zas, less than a page. Cana­dian po­ets are known for their long, chatty verse. A poem by Sarah could fit in the palm of your hand.

In a re­mark­able mix of stub­born­ness and ded­i­ca­tion, Sarah has main­tained these qual­i­ties through­out her four decades as a pub­lished poet. She’s writ­ten dozens of re­views and es­says on the craft of po­etry — many of them col­lected in Lit­tle Eurekas: A Decade’s Thoughts on Po­etry (2007) — and has con­sis­tently praised po­ets for work that, in her words, is “muted, mod­est; mostly free of ex­cess.”but she hasn’t al­ways been happy to be iden­ti­fied in this way. She has, in fact, com­plained about all the at­ten­tion paid to her quo­tid­ian sub­ject mat­ter be­cause of the di­rec­tive in her 2002 poem “Bounty” to “make much of some­thing small.” In a re­cent in­ter­view, she coun­ters that, “It isn’t the small­ness of a thing that prompts me to write about it, but rather what it evokes, the meta­phoric res­o­nances I sense in it.” Still, it takes a poet with a deep re­spect for the seem­ingly un­re­mark­able to sense those res­o­nances in the first place and to draw them out.

Her new book, out last month, Wher­ever We Mean to Be: Se­lected Po­ems, 1975–2015, col­lects the best of those quiet epipha­nies. Con­tain­ing nearly 100 po­ems, the book is re­fresh­ingly com­pact. While there are a few heart­breaks (I’m sad­dened by the ab­sence of “Be­lief,” in which the nar­ra­tor

de­clares that, given the choice, she would be “a dry, curled leaf-boat, drift­ing on the / sur­face above its own per­fect re­flec­tion”), Wher­ever We Mean to Be show­cases Sarah’s gifts: her vis­ual clar­ity, no-non­sense voice, com­pressed lan­guage, rhyth­mic prow­ess, and meta­phoric agility.

These qual­i­ties spring from a long-cul­ti­vated fo­cus and be­speak a writer who pays fierce at­ten­tion to the ba­sic fact of be­ing in the world. We have the de­fi­ant “Main­te­nance,” in which the house-work­laden nar­ra­tor as­serts, “There’s no po­etry / in scrap­ing con­crete off the high-chair tray / with a bent kitchen knife.” There’s the breezy “Vil­lanelle for a Cool April,” which con­tains a lovely it­er­a­tion of Sarah’s poetic creed: “I like a leaf­ing-out by in­cre­ments / — not bolt­ing bloom, in sud­den heat be­gun.”

Sarah aims to write uni­ver­sal po­etry, po­etry that moves be­yond the per­sonal “such that it ceases to be one’s own and be­comes every­body’s — be­comes public.” That am­bi­tion has made her one of the na­tion’s most no­table po­ets (she was awarded a Gover­nor Gen­eral’s Lit­er­ary Award in 2015). But on the other side of nine col­lec­tions, the firm­ness of Sarah’s call­ing — her un­flag­ging cer­tainty in her poetic method and the con­clu­sions she gen­er­ates from it— emerges as both her great strength and her great weak­ness.

Canada is awash in ur­gent, lin­guis­ti­cally in­ven­tive po­etry, much of it—from the work of Karen Solie to Ge­orge El­liott Clarke—ris­ing out of a trou­bled so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, and en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness. Sarah’s style is less showy, her con­cerns the old stand­bys: love and death, hope and de­spair. It’s the lack of con­tem­po­rary hand-wring­ing that makes this sur­vey of Sarah’s work a re­fresh­ing, per­ti­nent, and pow­er­ful read. As we col­lec­tively con­tem­plate ex­treme weather pat­terns, global ter­ror at­tacks, and the ad­vent of driver­less cars, Sarah re­mains at­tuned to our ba­sic hu­man cu­rios­ity, our eter­nal sense of con­fu­sion and won­der.

“Sta­tion” is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of how Sarah mines her metaphors from the every­day. The nar­ra­tor and a com­pan­ion “come to a halt” be­fore a scene of gulls walk­ing around the space­ship out­side a sci­ence mu­seum.

The gulls are white as en­velopes, and cir­cu­late. The sta­tion­ary hull re­ver­ber­ates with gleam. Not what we came to see — two trav­ellers, refugees of our own pasts, come for the day on busi­ness — still, we have

(for no clear rea­son to be fath­omed) to pause here, hand in hand, try­ing to net a thought

Sarah stages the mo­tive be­hind that pause — “to net a thought” — lu­cidly, with­out fuss or ar­ti­fice. Note how ef­fi­ciently the verb “to net” em­bod­ies both im­age and me­taphor (the im­age en­act­ing and en­hanc­ing the me­taphor), how the “aw” in “thought” neatly echoes that of “pause,” and how the sen­sa­tion of but­ter­fly-catch­ing a fleet­ing idea is cap­tured in the re­peated fi­nal con­so­nants of “net” and “thought.”

It would be only a slight ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say I could ran­domly flip to al­most any poem in Wher­ever We Mean to Be and pull out a sim­i­larly apt and rev­e­la­tory me­taphor. The way that, “Some­thing has jarred loose in the mind. / An old grief, like a mar­ble rolling around.” Or how the smoke “from morn­ing cig­a­rettes col­lects to hang / like a blue is­land on the musty air.” In an­other poem, it’s the way a “storm-lopped tree” will even­tu­ally cor­rect its shape, “so time / closes around the hole in it­self / left by the ter­ri­ble event.” Else­where, a mo­ment of reck­on­ing is “wind fill­ing an empty dress / hung out to air, / re­volv­ing slowly on its hanger”; a dried “sprig of un­known bloom” stands in for “a waste / of friend­ship, forced to flower, culled in haste.”

These are the sort of metaphors that po­ets ev­ery­where dream of con­jur­ing. Metaphors that in their clar­ity of sense, im­age, and sound cre­ate spa­ces for mean­ing to re­side — mean­ing that is elu­sive or other­wise im­pos­si­ble to ar­tic­u­late, but that leaves read­ers with a height­ened sense of recog­ni­tion. A poem, writes Sarah in Lit­tle Eurekas, is like a kite. “A reader should be able to run with it, and see it lift up. The words that a poem is made of must be words that open out, to catch the winds of thought.”

But while each of Sarah’s po­ems is a lov­ingly con­structed kite, read­ers are not al­ways left free to fly it. Con­sider “Castoffs.” At the be­gin­ning of each of the poem’s two stan­zas, we are told that “poignancy” re­sides in the dis­carded ob­jects she goes on to de­pict: the arm­less doll, the “love-stained mat­tress in the rain,” and the “per­fectly good bird­cage” that of­fers “all the bells / and whis­tles — ev­ery­thing / but the bird.”

Sarah’s metic­u­lous de­scrip­tions alone would have been enough to sum­mon the poignancy of those items. To be told what to feel is de­flat­ing. Why not trust her­self to evoke in her reader what those ob­jects evoked in her? Or, even bet­ter, why not al­low for the pos­si­bil­ity of some­thing al­to­gether dif­fer­ent to sur­face in the reader, a re­sponse she couldn’t an­tic­i­pate?

Most po­ets oc­ca­sion­ally suc­cumb to the temp­ta­tion to ex­plain their metaphors. Sarah does so more of­ten than a poet of her gifts should. “Scratch” is a de­light­fully melan­cholic poem about the strug­gle to in­voke “tin­der words” to “jump-start the heart.” To­ward the end, the heart — the poem’s pro­tag­o­nist — sits down in the road and “waits for some­thing / to turn it over.” But rather than leav­ing the reader on that open road with the poem’s long-suf­fer­ing, half- de­spair­ing heart, Sarah bus­tles in with a line as­sur­ing us the “roomy heart” is “will­ing to be sur­prised.” She cuts short the pos­si­bil­i­ties of her poem by defin­ing them.

This, mind you, is the same poet who can trans­form tri­ads of frogs — “the long, slow / trills bub­bling up in the moon­light” — into an ex­quis­ite de­fence of a life sim­ply lived. Or who can turn a peb­ble ric­o­chet­ing “off the bus stop / with the kind of ping metal only makes / when cold” into an af­fir­ma­tion of co­in­ci­dence where “the un­ex­pected be­comes a way of say­ing / yes again.” If I’m frus­trated, in other words, it’s be­cause Sarah of­ten de­fies the im­pulse at the heart of her prac­tice: to let cer­tainty go and em­brace pro­found am­bi­gu­ity.

That am­bi­gu­ity nes­tles bril­liantly in the “ghost of a rose” from “Echoes in Novem­ber.” It’s con­jured through the echoed o’s and r’s in ghost, rose, car­rot, core. It re­veals it­self “faintly” and fleet­ingly and leaves the reader with a de­li­cious won­der­ment, one para­dox­i­cally found in a “stub” not worth sal­vaging for soup.

That stub be­longs within any hun­gry reader’s reach. Sarah of­fers us her me­taphor here as an ex­pe­ri­ence rather than an ar­gu­ment. We can taste its essence. We even smell it, a whiff of rose blos­som min­gling in­ex­pli­ca­bly with the earthy root veg­etable. Sarah gives us a meta­phys­i­cal mys­tery as a sen­sory ob­ject: a marvel to dis­cover for our­selves and, there­fore, to know in­ti­mately.

ill us­tra­tion by karen klassen

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