Brick Books, 2012
Pico Iyer once wrote, “It doesn’t matter where or how far you go… the important thing is how alive you are. Writing of every kind is a way to wake oneself up and keep as alive as when one has just fallen in love.”
In reading Susan Gillis’ 2012 collection The Rapids, Iyer’s quote comes to mind as the perfect mantra for the speaker of these poems: someone who gets so lost in detail, someone who is so fully engaged with both her physical surroundings and internal senses that standing on a porch is as exotic as touring Chile, and stepping on a balcony is as turbulent as rafting down the Lachine Rapids.
As suggested by the title, The Rapids is a turbulent, ethereal collection of poetry that spans the distance between rural Canada, urban Montreal to landscapes as far away as Greece and Chile. The reader is taken on a journey through many passages, unexpected turns, and places of surprising tranquility. Similar themes of loneliness, disconnection and an unquiet mind are woven throughout each of the groups of poems, as well as images from nature and a searching for solace.
The first of four sections in the collection, called “Bloodroot”, pulls the reader into the speaker’s lonely, pastoral world where the desire to embark on something more is palpable:
Each day curved, inviting as a bell
Opened by birdsong and the persistence of surf
or its cousin, wind in the leaves.
Like an open throat, rimmed with the moist lips
of a limitless music.
I climbed in, with my kit of troubled origins.
There is a restlessness, unwilling to lay down roots, or desire to be uprooted in this section. This journey is interconnected, as the travel in the poems happen simultaneous to a new awakening internally.
The poems speak of loss through uprooting: “No one can cross the rapids without unnatural force.” (36) There is a ‘we’ mentioned in several of the poems, drawing to mind an image of husband and melancholic wife wanting to leave her bucolic life/marriage to embark on an exotic journey.
The section called “Neruda’s Rain” is homage to Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet whose 1973 death is shrouded in suspicion, although apart from the namesake poem in this section, there’s not much to ground the reader in Chile, or make a connection to the sub-title or to Neruda. All other poems in this section are rooted in Europe: Greece, Germany, and the north of France. The sub-title sets up a promise of exploration that was not fulfilled, proving to be one of the only (slight) disappointments in the book. Having said that, the poetry in this section is compelling and vivid, offering memorable verses you’ll want to read again and again.
Throughout the entire collection the poet shows amazing depth and range, none more so than in the third section called “Habitat”, an exploration of architecture inspired by Moshde Safdie. These poems seem to explore various synthetic and engineered places we call home and its (dis)connection to nature. The final section, “Twenty-two Views of the Lachine Rapids”, feels more observatory, yet the poet’s reverence to her subject remains evident. There’s a sense of detached neutrality as the poet observes the ebbs and flows of life that pulls us all toward a rush of turbulent water.
Rochelle Squires, a former journalist, is completing her Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing through the Opt-Res program at UBC.