Brick Books, 2014
Grief demands new ways of viewing the world to allow others to understand our weeping. The experience—the physical manifestation of the experience—might amount to days or months of tears, but to express that, to allow it to rise above the physical, requires metaphor, humour, the direct terseness of memory, and the ineffable intrusion of the subconscious.
Jane Munro’s Blue Sonoma gives us all of this in four discreet reflections on the loss of her partner to Alzheimer’s. Each section of the book is a meditation on life and loss, given its own unique structure. Each has its own urgency for remembrance and life. Because each is so unique, there is a richness of tone that builds a multi-dimensional view of this relationship.
The language is most lyrically satisfying in the first series of poems, “Darkling”. Lines like “Hawthorn. Huckleberry. Rain on” (p. 21), “The cleverness of fitted bones. Skin bags of gewgaws” (p. 23) and “sharpened to a five-body edge” (p. 26) continue to resonate and have me returning to these poems. And the description of Alzheimer’s taking its toll:
The row of silent houses–places where life went on.
Wind pouring down the slopes, curling up
as it hits their structures. Tides of cold air.
Slowly, the plain is moving.
The second section, “Dream Poems”, has a murky and scattered feel to it, as dreams will. But they cohere as metaphorical ruminations on the loss of a life known—how one views it as if from behind glass, watching ourselves in a landscape skewed not only by absence but also what has filled that absence.
“The Vacanas”, or colloquial prayers about the narrator’s “old man”, of the third section stand out for their spare construction and the blunt honesty of quotidian intimacy and pain. The best of these poems surprise the most with re-reading, as well-crafted short poems often will.
“Sutra”, the final section, appears to be a thread of poems about how to carry on in the midst of loss and change. Sutra literally means a thread or line that holds things together, and here we see the narrator doing so as an older woman faced with idea of life without her partner. In “The live arbutus carries dead branches”, Munro writes:
But I know what lasts.
What claims each twig is hard
to carve into spoons or boxes,
One carries on, rediscovers oneself in new ways. This is what aging is—not completely awful, just not youth. There are other concerns, other needs, that give the world meaning, and Munro ruminates on these.
This collection rarely falls short of satisfying the reader. In each section, there is perhaps one poem that could have been trimmed from the collection without being missed. As a reader, I understand why at least one of these poems was included, but feel they still didn’t live up to strength of the rest of the collection—specifically, “In a small boat off Port Renfrew”, the eighth of the “Old Man Vacanas”, and “In the drift towards sleep, a green face”.
But as a collection, it works flawlessly. Finishing the book, I felt I had taken a journey with the poet. I can’t say I arrived “safe” on the other side of something, only that memory, when we are lucky enough to preserve it, offers much to maintain us and help us forward. The dust jacket of the book mentions how this collection bridges Eastern and Western poetic traditions. In closing, this short poem from “Darkling” captures that blend of influences, the essence of Blue Sonoma:
Mallard above. Mallard below. Two green, iridescent necks,
one reaching up, one down. Two curls on two tails.
And us, were we substance or reflection?
Moon boat sailing high.
Robert Colman is a writer and editor based in Newmarket, Ont. He is the author of two books of poetry – Little Empires (Quattro Books) and The Delicate Line (Exile Editions). A new chapbook is forthcoming from Frog Hollow Press in 2015.