by Robert Colman
Oolichan Books, 2013
Tom Wayman has had a long relationship on the page with Pablo Neruda. In his first collection of poems, Waiting for Wayman (1973), his poem “Influences” has him asking Neruda, his great poetic influence, to “Vanish. Vamos!” so that Wayman can get on with being himself, establishing his own voice.
Wayman has understandably revisited his connections to Neruda over the years. Even if Neruda wasn’t just a giant of the lyric poem, he is also a naturally political poet, just as Wayman is—as Wayman can’t help being, even in his love lyrics. For Wayman, the political is social, the two cannot be separated—and, in his opinion, nor should they.
Winter’s Skin is a response to poems, phrases and images in Neruda’s posthumous volume Winter Garden. The warmth and intimacy of the book makes me picture Wayman sitting down across the table from the Chilean master—two old friends trading necessary stories. And the poems here cover the necessary in full—a love lost, youthful revolt, political engagement, solitary reflection—all through the prism of winter’s hardness, its snows and rains.
Wayman is at his most memorable in longer narrative poems, such as “The Resistance” and “Umbrellas”—I’ve been carrying around several images from both poems in my mind since first reading the collection: in “Umbrellas, “herds of black umbrellas” crossing a university campus, other black umbrellas “drenched bats” (25) clinging to the wall of a cave; in “The Resistance”, “sipped hot coffee from cups / with a sugared rim” (21), and “strike placards covered by flapping plastic/ on which water beaded” (20). These last two examples give a sense of the tight rhythm Wayman maintains in these poems. And while both are more than two pages long, their energy never flags. Wayman gives himself the space in both to create complete communities, and the intimacies associated with each.
This isn’t to say that Wayman isn’t just as successful with more concise reflections—the opening poem, “Minutes”, as well as “Grouse”, “Flag” and “Wood” are stand-outs in this respect. It is understandable that “Minutes” starts the collection, with how it vividly connects the poet to the landscape. “I do not ask to be winter’s tongue:…” it begins:
…I ask only
to take the minutes
of the meeting between the season
Only one or two poems in the collection failed to carry me. “Cartographic” tries too hard to be amusing. I understand the poet’s desire to include it as a break from the emotional heft of the collection, but it didn’t feel necessary. “Dust”, similarly, added little to the movement of the collection. It seemed that the emotion described in the poem was more aptly captured (if less directly) in other poems.
The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs of winter landscapes by Jeremy Addington and Rod Currie. At their most effective, these images add to the poems with which they are juxtaposed. The best examples of this in the collection are probably the poems “Grouse”, “Beach”, “Flag” and “Breath”. The images directly opposite each add to the aura of the written word. One can’t help but pause to reflect on both the short, pithy poems but also the images offered on the page as an extension of those words.
The only quibble I had with the book was that there are several Neruda quotations included, and all but one are presented only in the original Spanish. I appreciate wanting to share the cadence of the original lines, but it would have been an added pleasure to read translations of the lines in a section of end notes.
What the collection captured for me most was the very difficulty of winter – how necessary it is to keep looking through its sadnesses and cold, wet memory to stay connected with the world. Better to chart the loss of love, the loss of youth, even our own weakness, than wallow in silence. As Wayman says in “Ridge”:
Only in our soiled,
hobbled, irrational glory
can we launch the audacious whirlwind necessary
to free ourselves…
Robert Colman is a Newmarket, Ontario-based writer and editor. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Little Empires (Quattro Books 2012) and The Delicate Line (Exile Editions 2008). He is currently pursuing his MFA through UBC’s Optional Residency program.