Dog Poems by Louise Carson (Thornhill, ON: Aeolus House, 2020), 107 pages

 

A Review of Louise Carson’s Dog Poems and Carolyn Marie Souaid’s The Eleventh Hour

Louise Carson and Carolyn Marie Souaid are two Montréal-area poets who as far as I know have never met. Both are women who have seen a fair share of life and written multiple books of poetry and prose. Both have published collections of poems in the last year that treat themes of nature, mortality and reckoning as their final season approaches. So why not have them meet on this web page?

Louise Carson’s Dog Poems concern the poet’s largely solitary life with her dog and cats in the countryside near St-Lazare, Québec. One feels the weight of prolonged solitude in the often-slender lines and spare imagery of these poems; however, the poems are also leavened by a bemused, often deadpan humour. Quite a few of the poems are inspired by the rhythm of her dog walking, trotting, loping along, and its sniffing, pawing, snuffling manner of exploration. Some are deliberately shaped to evoke that simple, instinctual life and the way the constant companionship of that dog shapes her.

She does-
n’t walk
she al-
most al-
ways trots.
She looks
for food
and whines
when I
refuse
to let
her cross
the road
for Mc-
Donald’s
or Tim’s
sacks, cups.

She pulls
against
the leash
unless
I cop-
y her
and trot.

(“The dog walks”)

 

Carson’s poems about her dog are almost all brief, and myopic in scope to suggest the dog’s elemental nature, with titles like “Each day I brush the dog,” “Alone with the dog,” “Dog … and cat poem,” “No bad dogs,” “The dog’s name is Mata,” “Barrel, stock, muzzle.” Interspersed with these are honest, direct poems about aging, difficulties of writing, the death of the author’s mother, reconciling oneself with past abusive relationships, living on limited means, and the challenges of living alone:

Living alone is bad for your health.
Fuckbuddy wants me.

Women are more likely to be assaulted by someone
   they’re living with.
My ex assaulted me at the beginning
   and end of our relationship. Neatly bracketed.

Sitting for more than four hours is bad for your health.
Sitting writing for the last twelve years, I gained
   weight but was able to survive the last twelve years.

(“Proposition/Observation”)

Amid these short poems is the powerful and courageous “Cancer Suite,” which concerns Carson’s harrowing experience surviving lymphoma. But also to be found are poems celebrating the joys of writing, Carson’s loving relationship with her daughter, and the simple pleasures of a good day.

Are these poems great? There is awesome reckoning in “Cancer Suite.” And the rest of the poems – all, as I said, short, or pretty short – do what they want to do, are written with knife-like concision, and have cumulative effect. Carson’s ironic awareness of her own limitations disarms with bittersweet charm. As the introductory poem, “One dog more,” puts it,

(These poems are humble, like a dog,
and, like a dog, are also thieves,
and bad actors.)

 

 

The Eleventh Hour by Carolyn Marie Souaid (Victoria, BC: Ekstasis Editions), 73 pages

 

In The Eleventh Hour Carolyn Marie Souaid, like Louise Carson, concerns herself with aging, dying, and other limiting realities. But Souaid gives greater focus, as her title suggests, on the urgency of little time left; indeed, her keen sense of mortality heightens an anxiety-edged but ecstatic awareness that this is it. Light is a common image and metaphor, in all its mystical, ethereal implications.

I awoke to handfuls of light,
the cool wind pressing through a window.
Undulating curtains.
My blood sugar spiked, energy pumped
through my body’s meridians.
I was as open
as new life blinking into the sun
for the first time,
a blank slate, ignorant
of our long, dark, collective history:
sooty traces of the Industrial Revolution
coating our lungs.

(“And So, the Wind”)

Strolling by the river in a halo of light
I notice a dozen flies swarming
around death.
I am contemplating vantage points.
The bird’s head is crushed velvet,
blue and iridescent.

(“Amplitude”)

Countering this vision are frankly observed, constraining realities, in all their banal concreteness. Souaid’s dying father is the subject of several poems, poignant, elegiac and at turns humorous, such as this straight-forward but nevertheless complex portrait entitled “Pre-Op Checklist”:

Wheeled to the elevators
he is asked for the last time
before surgery what he has to declare
besides a watch and underwear.
Pills, nope.
Dentures, nope.
Cane, pace-maker.
Nope, nope.
Heart attack?
At his age, they expect decline.
A startled mouse not a full-scale carnivore.

This description would suggest he’s still a fierce customer, and undoubtedly he is; yet at the end of the poem, gentler qualities emerge, again bathed in light:

He is less engrossed in things than he was,
say, yesterday or the day before,
or a lifetime ago
on the Isle of Capri with his youthful bride.
The world that makes him happiest now
is a square of sunlight,
where Mother prepares his ham sandwich
the way he likes it, on a sesame bun
with mustard and lettuce.

Similar poems – similar in how affirmations are salvaged out of the foibles and obstructions the everyday throws up against desire – are “Exercise in Stillness,” “Their Death Projects,” “This Finite Moment,” “Still Life With Slippers,” “This Ordinary Life,” “Northern lights, Kangiqsujuaq” and “Timeline.”  Notable also are a couple of poems concerning the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing Max 8 flight, downed in 2019. Souaid’s cousin’s 24-year-old daughter was killed on that flight. Unforgettable is the irony of the Exit sign on the crashed plane.

A favourite poem is the final one, “Arthur,” which in its graceful way is emblematic of the charms and preoccupations of this collection. An old sparrow lands on the ledge by the window beyond the writer’s desk. It’s a repeated occurrence, and she affectionately comes to call him Arthur.

He’s like a nervous man in a tweed coat,
scurrying across the street
with a newspaper under his arm

but in all his ordinariness, arriving “gently on the wing of dawn,” he becomes a symbol for a mysterious transcendence beyond death:

… I believe
that long after my ashes have cooled,
that dear bird will find me again
wherever I am, in the web of silence,
the way he finds me now,
with my sleeves rolled up
and some tea in a pot, steeping.

The Eleventh Hour is a favourite collection of those by Carolyn Souaid I own and have read. They show a seasoned poet at the height of her powers.

 

 

Reflections on Stephen Morrissey’s A Poet’s Journey: on poetry and what it means to be a poet (Ekstasis Editions, 2019)

 

By the time you read this, the first wave of the pandemic will hopefully be over and we will be reaping the harvest of our collective and individual reactions and decisions.

When I took on this project, I purposely ignored the poet’s biography and bibliographical information at the end of the book. I avoided reading any of his poetry other than what appears in this book. I wrote this book review in early mornings and on rainy days beginning at the end of March and finishing in early May. One or two cats slumped on my lap; the dog asleep on the couch next to me; vanilla hazelnut coffee at my elbow. Wondering if today would be the day my daughter would bring CV-19 home from her part-time cashier job at Provigo.

A Poet’s Journey is a collection of book reviews, essays, memoirs and poems plus a selection of concrete poems, all by Stephen Morrissey. As a fellow poet, I was especially interested to read the essays about poetics and practice, eager for insights. In one entitled ‘Continuing Continuation, On Louis Dudek,’ Morrissey chooses as his epigraph this quote: “… remember/ the paltriness of worldly claims,/ and the immensity/ that is always now.” – Louis Dudek, Continuation III. In plague-day-speak, don’t sweat the small stuff (such as running out of vacuum cleaner bags, how to get tax papers ready, driving on winter tires in the summer).

The brilliant essay that in many ways forms the core of the book is part two to ‘Reading Louis Dudek’s Continuation: An Introduction to a Major Canadian Poem.’ Here are the poetics of one of Canada’s most important poets, filtered, condensed and presented by his friend, mentee and colleague, who sums the work up by naming it “radical” as it goes to “the roots of poetry and language.” This is a bold statement that I have no way of refuting, as I haven’t yet read Dudek’s Continuation.

Morrissey concludes this essay beautifully when he writes about the last poems of Continuation III written months before Dudek’s death. “In these final poems, Dudek returns repeatedly to the concept of time as infinity, he envisions an ultimate ‘shining’ that illuminates the darkness of ignorance with a kind of mystical perception of life.” And this concept is one Morrissey says has guided his own work.

The other major piece in A Poet’s Journey is the essay of the same name. Much in these fifteen or so pages resonates in me in reflecting on poetic practice. Points to consider include: Morrissey’s voluntary youthful self-isolation in order to survive; his definition of form as a container for content, with the two working together (Yes!); and confessional poetry, which he defines (quoting Frank Bidart) as being “… concerned with ‘the making of the soul.’” This is the definition of confessional poetry to which I ascribe.

Morrissey also makes a point of honouring the ancestors. His communicate most in winter in dreams or as ghosts. As do mine. Since early March, both my dead parents have been hovering around and my friend Dan, five years dead, appeared in a dream only to leave on an errand for me. So like him.

One of the few false notes (for me) in Morrissey’s system of poetics appears in this essay when he discusses male/female relations. “Marriage between a man and a woman – the expression of male and female energy – is a basic archetype of life. To deviate too far from the archetypes is to lose touch with what connects us to humanity, wisdom, and the eternal.” Huh?

I wish he’d given a wider interpretation of “the expression of male and female energy” to include individuals who see those energies in persons of the same gender as they, or as mingling and balancing satisfactorily in one individual. And, as a long unpartnered person myself, who saw her creative energies explode once freed of being partnered, we must agree to disagree not only on the definition of traditional marriage but on the whole concept. Or even (could we?) leave gender out of the equation altogether. But there it is.

Besides the poetics, I also enjoyed the concrete poems scattered throughout the book. “Regard as Sacred” takes the phrase “regard as sacred the disorder of my mind” (Rimbaud) and stutters its words into a cityscape above and reflection of same below by scrunching letters to form skyscrapers. Lots of depth here.

Another two poems – “amorphous space 1” and “amorphous space 2” – arrange the letters from sun, moon, stars and space into blocks that are arranged then carved out, leaving, yes, space, where the reader/viewer can wander. I like them.

Morrissey’s concrete poems were created in the 1970s, as was his essay “The Purpose of Experimental Poetry.” Here’s what engaged me from that piece. That experimental poetry communicates changing times while remaining timeless. That experimentation with form must come without preconceived notion. That “… poets don’t have merely one voice or style, but several over a lifetime …”

Towards the end of the book is “Believe Nothing,” an author statement in point form. “I have lived the nihilist’s life: anonymous, introverted, and appalled.” “Believing anything makes people stupid.” Yeah!

There are other essays on craft: finding voice; confessional poetry; poetry as the voice of the human soul; visionary poetry. All are interesting to read. And in some of the memoirs and eulogies we find traces of history of the poetry circle(s) in Montréal over the last few generations. (For those of us who were not members of those groups.)

After spending a good number of plague days steeped in A Poet’s Journey, I now want to seek out more of Stephen Morrissey’s poems. Perhaps you may wish to do the same.