house made of rain
Ronsdale Press, 2014
In the many times I have encountered Pamela Porter’s work in literary journals, she has always come across as a poet who arrives at the page to ask the difficult personal questions in life. This is what Porter does in her collection, house made of rain. The book is divided into three parts and the structure is reminiscent of a religious service. It’s as if in Section I, the poet arrives at a place of worship with inner confessions and reflections upon life’s problems, then in Section II shorter poems explore varying points of view from different angles somewhat like the variety in different prayers, or sermons, and finally Section III is like a rousing hymn that provides some degree of levity compared to the serious tone in the previous material.
The theme of grief in this book appears to be inspired by recent events in the poet’s life, such as the passing of her mother who takes with her the secret identity of Porter’s biological father. “Atonement” embodies the first segment of the collection and consists of twenty-nine verses. Verse twenty is written in full-blown prose in the style of a folk tale. It is about a girl who loves her father intensely but when she shows evidence of this, he disappears from her, and into “brittle leaves, which the wind thrust high into the air”. (33)
The language used in house made of rain is at times biblical, as in verse ten of “Atonement”:
Suffer the banished to come unto me.
Suffer my hands to cover my face.
Suffer my ears; suffer my eyes. (21)
Porter has shared in interviews that she grew up in a strict Presbyterian family, learning to read passages from the hymnbook at age five, and listening to readings from the King James Bible. Although the identity of her biological father was never revealed, it is suspected he may have been a minister who passed away some time before the poet’s mother. What is Porter atoning for? Could it be the time wasted obsessing over her father, and the regret in never knowing him? “We’ll say how hard we tried. How hard we tried to love.” (44)
As if to give us a bit of a breather from the dense riches of “Atonement”, the middle section of the collection is broken into eighteen shorter poems that illuminate the years during which the speaker felt “nameless”. Her mother visits her in a variety of forms, whether it’s through childhood memories or as a phantom after death as in the poem, “Before the Day is Over”.
Porter’s poetic canvas is a fluid place where ghosts of family members morph into spirits of nature that then move through the poet. My favourite poem in this section is called, “Soul”, perhaps because it feels like a bright spot in the somewhat brooding and serious tone of the overall body of work. Instead of a house of rain we have, “she, a house of light, a lamp”(69). This she appears to be the caretaker of our speaker, a guiding force that holds things together. I crave more after the last line, “With her, this journey had been long.” (69) This is unlike others where I felt Porter had fully explored all avenues to come to a satisfying end, or in a couple of instances had even over-exploited things such that a final stanza might be cut.
The tone of the final long poem called “The Book of Astonishments”, is like that of a child’s book of morals. Structurally, it presents itself like an alphabet poem, the kind high school students have to write. It is likely that Porter was also paying tribute to the ancient sacred poetic form, the abedecarian poem, where each line or stanza advances in alphabetical order. This form was used in religious Hebrew poetry and in prayers, hymns and psalms. There is music to this piece with its regular italicized refrains that is reminiscent of hymns. This odyssey through the alphabet eventually brings us to the final crescendo, “the bell tensed/in the moment before singing”. (96) And so we are left with silence reverberating and echoing out from a wealth of poetic allusion and illusions.
Much of Porter’s work is written in 3-5 line stanzas with a tendency to use line fragments to give stanzas a certain amount of levity from characteristically long lines. Despite these long lines, the poet unflaggingly manages to build energy and momentum through her work. You certainly feel as if you are in good hands with Porter, confident, insightful, steady hands, and though we never discover that nugget of information searched for through the book, we are left with the feeling that, probably, that’s okay.
Rhonda Collis is on the editorial board of PRISM international. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Room, On Spec, The Antigonish Review, TheVancouver Review, The Bridport Anthology, Smartish Pace, ARC, Fiddlehead, subTerrain, and others. She lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and two daughters.