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.

 

 

 

Honey bee hive via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Youth, imperious

Bring me high-heeled shoes
but with the heels snapped off (as I’m in a hurry)

and furry mittens that I may explore
my animal nature.

For forty is far away and I will never let age
pull down the corners of my mouth.

Bring me flowers and bees.
I have honey to make.

 

 

Dog, waiting outside

for Zef

My owner’s generosity has me thinking
I’m something more than a dog. A butterfly?

Tied to a post, I gaze into the gallery.
Prospective customers brush past.

Two Tibetan monks stop in the street,
say hello to me. When they leave

their disciples bow one by one
as if to consult my map to heaven.

 

 

Poem

The word is moving
is probably beautiful
ends sexual energy utterly

yet a man whispered ‘hello’
in the supermarket
and this was so thrilling
I forgot to whisper ‘hello’ back

went home and dreamed
not of him – somewhat mesomorphic
with bushy grey-black hair
my real-time match –
but of a winsome youth
nuzzling me

and I dreamed someone else alive
appearing infrequently
in a small untidy windowless room
hidden in my imaginary house.

If I’d never learned to read
none of this would be happening.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Mitochondrial Eve

A plague of poppies: salmon, tomato,
apricot. Some years I save the seeds,
audible in upright cups, and carry them,
carefully, to make two lemon cakes,
eat all those flowers.

Flowers that are as famous as
the famous dead. As famous as seven
mothers, each buried at the bottom of
her skeleton tree. Perhaps a little
Lucy momma buried at the root of mine.

And famous are the blackbirds in the garden.
Each at the top of its pine,
sings its posterity song –
‘I’m listening, I’m listening’ –
to simple strands, tightly bound.

 

Continue reading “The Problem of Joy”

In Which, Being Book One of the Chronicles of Deasil Widdy by Louise Carson,
Broken Rules Press (Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Québec), 2018, 152 pages

 

“Their long horns drooped and they seemed half asleep, unable to
feel his presence.
Perhaps I am not real, he thought, if the beasts don’t notice me.
Perhaps I’m already dead, a ghost. But the cold rain and his
soaked clothing persuaded him otherwise. Bits of grass and
buttercups stuck to his shoes.”

The words are from an early page in Montréal poet and novelist Louise Carson’s recent novel In Which, Being Book One of the Chronicles of Deasil Widdy. The story takes place some 300 years ago in the daunting, varied land- and seascape of southwestern Scotland between the Isle of Man and Glasgow.

When we initially meet Deasil he is about to venture for the first time beyond the village of Sithford, where he was born. He is a tall young man, barely out of his teens but already endowed with the full strength of a man in his prime. He is being seen off at early dawn by a washerwoman who has always been a surrogate mother to him, his real mother having given birth to him at the moment she was dying by hanging. (Like many mysteries of In Which, the intrigue of her hanging shall remain unspoiled by an explanation here.)

The washerwoman gives Deasil a bag of oatcakes and dried apples to give him a start on his journey. Other than that, all he takes with him is a caul he wears tied around his neck as a memento of his unusual birth. None of his fellow villagers are about, and Deasil would rather not reveal to people that he is leaving. He has a past that marks him as somewhat of an outcast and possibly untrustworthy, so he is cautious about arousing suspicions. He’d rather leave everything about the village behind him, especially the dark memories of incidents in his youth, if they were possible to forget.

In Which has some of the features of a picaresque novel, in that its protagonist goes from one adventure to another on a sojourn of discovery. Deasil, however, is neither rogue nor rascal nor quixotic dreamer, as picaresque heroes or anti-heroes tend to be. Having not much of a plan except to distance himself from his village, he keeps out of sight or else is careful to present himself with an inconspicuous demeanour, tramping across the highlands and meadows, wending through forests, and hazarding river crossings, looking for a town where he might find work. In a matter of hours he has become a jobless wanderer ever subject to turns of fortune over which he has little control, one who is driven to search for something that he is as yet too inexperienced to define.

In the highlands he encounters members of Scotland’s famous parallel world of ghosts, fairies, and “little people dressed in green” who travel across the land, invisible yet legendary to most people. They are creatures who appear to Deasil at intervals before they disappear. They do not interact with him and might well be apparitions, yet as readers we feel that they belong to him, or he to them, in some otherworldly way.

Eventually Deasil comes to the River Nith, of which he has heard and which he hopes will guide him to a town where a workman is needed. He has spent a sum of days and nights exposed to the vagaries of highland weather and has exhausted his meagre provisions. When he arrives at Dumfries, a town of seamen, he is eager to accept any task that comes his way. Little can he imagine that ahead is not only work, food, rest and comradeship, but a larger world of contraband, thieves, smugglers, and the men who pursue them or at least their stash of stolen goods. There are the excise men, sailors and captains of the Royal Navy. He escapes from one danger to another as circumstances force him to work with first the lawmen, then the criminals, then back again. Those roles do not come to him by nature. His young world has only been heretofore that of the gallows, something more like a curse than an adventure. However, he finds brief but supportive receptions from some of the villagers he meets along the way.  Some of the older men give him useful advice as to whom to trust, and their wives (usually cooks) provide him with a warm, nurturing care beyond practicality.

Louise Carson’s biography at the end of In Which mentions that her past accomplishments include singing in the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company. There is a suggestion of music for the stage in her novel, with its lyrical settings and dramatic passages. Deasil’s sea adventures bring to mind Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, which has the same nautical atmosphere and a young protagonist who is subject to a fortune beyond his control. Carson’s recurring motifs of apparitions on the highlands, set pieces of work crews singing sea chanteys, enjoying hearty meals and drinking mugs of ale after exhausting toils on the sea, or on loading docks, have their counterparts in portions of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Die Götterdämmerung, and Die Meistersinger. Likewise, although Felix Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” Overture was composed a century or so later than Carson’s music through words, they both come from the same spellbinding Scottish seascapes’ inspiration.

Scotland itself grows into more than a motif. It provides a defining gravitas to the novel’s scenes of danger and suspense. The surroundings of forest, glen, firth, turbulent straits and dreamlike, deserted castles form an atmosphere worthy of the human dramas Carson depicts. She adds here and there reminders too of Celtic and Norse strains that contribute to the history of the land.

Last but not least, Deasil has a romantic encounter with a young woman who has secrets of her own that she reveals, as the couple draw close. They each share with one another their true selves, under the calming effects of confession. They momentarily feel a mutual unburdening. For Deasil, he experiences a “true self” he did not have at the beginning of his journey. As a couple, though, they go their separate ways, the woman wedded to the sea and Deasil to some tranquil land he has not yet found. Although they seem destined to go their separate ways, one wonders if sometime they might meet again.

In Which is just 152 pages long, but to read it is to go back in time, witnessing many human demonstrations of kindness, folly, deception and danger, plus the awe of nature that lingers when the book is closed. Its Scottish enchantment never quite leaves us. And to think it is merely the overture – a rousing one with much more to come!

 

 

Note about the book:

In Which, Book One of The Chronicles of Deasil Widdy, is the first of a trilogy. Book Two, Measured, is slated for publication this summer, and Book Three, Third Circle, in 2020. All are from Broken Rules Press, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Québec. Available through the author at: louise_m_carson@hotmail.com.

 

 

They don’t like us much

 

They don’t like us much. No, really, they don’t.

They don’t like our long hair tied back. They really don’t like

our hair short. ‘Excuse me, sir. Oh, sorry.’

They don’t like our eyes looking at them

unless obscured by shadows, false lashes.

Then, when so decorated, they want them turned only at them.

And they don’t like our clothes.

Tight ones mean we’re asking for it.

Baggy ones mean we don’t have self-respect.

They don’t like our occupations. No, I’m wrong.

They don’t see our occupations.

They don’t like us much

and I don’t like many of them.

 

 

Bad Alice

 

Don’t change, Alice.

Alice when she grows or shrinks.

Or turns a great eye out the attic window.

Don’t look at us, Alice.

 

Alice asks questions, tries to show her brain.

God, Alice,

show us anything else you like but that.

Bad. Bad poem. Bad, bad Alice.

 

 

Trinity College Dublin Library: The Long Room

 

The smell of old books.

White marble busts of dead white males.

No women here. No women at all.

But ladders … and girls …

 

Oh, yes, girls now.

Glimpsed, working upstairs.

They murmur,

out of sight.

 

 

Ordinary killer                

 

Dedicated to the memory of Jessica Lloyd, Corporal Marie-France Comeau

and who knows how many other women in how many other countries

 

He kills me

He kills me not

He kills me

He kills me not

He –

 

Daisy, daisy, tell me true,

Does my lover love me? A little? Or no?

 

He kills me

He kills me not

He kills me

He kills me not

He kills –

 

Strangers in their far-off lands

Demonstrators, if they get out of hand

The girls who try to join his band

 

He kills me

He kills me not

He kills me

He kills me not

 

Oh misery

He killed me

 

 

 

Chronic Fatigue System

Too tired to exercise (who gets mono in their 50s?),
endorphins droop and symptoms of menopause return,
drench night’s sheets.

And the bones, breaking down, what that other poet said,
‘the leaking’ or ‘letting in of light,’
the bones shift for comfort.

Surprisingly, lying in the darkened room
without tv or book, I’m not depressed,
let hours hang, slip.

Breath wants to go in, wants to come out.
I forgive myself for growing old.

 

Civilization

It ends with a pipe that is not a pipe,
a house that is not a home,
a Christ in ruins.

Between covers of books, sad cut-outs wander.

Keep your brought-to-this-point
harvest moving,
distract with drift
of snow or petal.

Don’t lie about your end.
That would be wrong.

 

Making way for the next

When Mum died writing came.
After Dad – money.
Together they equal good
but unreconciled.

I edge to the window

Crow family, brought down by winter
from five to two, caw, go up.

 

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA
Image by Susan Dubrofsky

 

Canadian poetry

The birds are quiet here.
They do not shout
or bang about the window openings.
They are discreet
and twitter from a distance
screened by shrub and fence,
minding their business.

 

 

Perfume

All my life, someone
(first my grandmother, Yorkshire crude,
then my parents, too tough to tell,
and now my sister, gray like me)
has brought me one
and put it – small – in my hand.

Open the box,
push aside excelsior,
lift from thin paper wrapper
and slice: an Easter egg, chocolate nut.

And then – as does myrrh’s bitter scent,
released when the jar’s unstopped –
its fragrance feeds me

 

 

And snow again

Today the world is white orchids and ice pellets
and I am waiting to remember.

Here are stiffness and exhaustion: words that conjoin
after a five-month winter.

There is a clump of purple crocuses, though one of the birch trunks
is in the way. You can see it from here.

I want to be clear. If you lean forward you will see:
soft amethyst tubes closed tight

take the cold wind from the storm.
It will be May.

 

 

Winter, prairie

You see her looking out an upper window.
The bedroom.
Her hair is blond and up, her skin
a pale reflection.

She looks down where they play
then up, across
the flat, white, sunny plain.

Use talent to remember this. Engineer it.

For her the treeless afternoon, for them the snow.
For you, her.

 

 

 

Message

So many near misses.
Air opens as bird swerves away from car and I am grateful.

My child floats her soul down the street,
unaware that subtexts bear her onwards,
that she is held up by thought-bubbles:
miss u, meet u, dear you.

Wait for me. I am almost there.