Review by Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt
Montreal Before Spring
Donald McGrath, trans.
The poems in Montreal Before Spring, written by two-time Governor General’s Award Winner Robert Melançon and translated by Donald McGrath, capture the latency of the city at dawn or dusk, in March or October, in the seconds before change is tangible. This slim volume is an ode to what lies between; it tells of seasons in limbo, long distances dividing old friends, and out-of-focus moments separating wakefulness from sleep, as in this excerpt from “The Passage”:
I sense, close by and all around, the city
fused wholly with this darkness,
in this mass full of unknown things
called night. The bed is an island
or a boat. At the open window
a light breeze stirs, the wind flows
into the bedroom, outside it flows
through leaves like a dry river. (29)
Expressed in the unhurried voice of someone well-acquainted with time and its tricks, a sense of stillness to these poems led me to the question: how much of our lives do we spend in anticipation of whatever comes next? This collection reminds the reader that there is much to be noticed in moments that seem to exist outside of time: “telephone wires / line the sky / like lines in a schoolboy’s notebook” (20), “the air / tiered in pink striations” (24), “the smoke from chimneys coils / in plumes that fall back / upon the roofs.” (50) In “Yellow Plane,” quotidian details encompass the metaphysical:
See that curve of light, even
uniformly saturated and cut
by a slant horizon that bears not
a single blade of grass,
that no wind ripples, that shows
only the green expanse of an idea. (25)
But Montréal Before Spring is also about the relentless and unforgiving nature of time, how it spares no one. Melançon’s poetry often hits a sombre note (“everything will / be lost as if you’d been dreaming, it’s like / a dream, the disorder of an old man’s life / that comes back at the end” ), rendering the less frequent sparks of contentment and belonging tucked in to this collection all the more surprising, and welcome “Elegy Written in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Park”, one of the longer poems to play on the same theme, was awarded The Malahat Review’s Les poésies francophones du Canada Translation Prize in 2014. On an evening in autumn, in the title park, a narrator observes: “‘Soon, / we’ll be plunged into icy gloom. Adieu,’” (33). Signs of the forthcoming winter arouse bleak ruminations, until the only reasonable action to take is to return home in order to avoid catching a cold. Sometimes, the best thing to do is also the simplest: to carry on.
Though Melançon has had a distinguished career as a translator, literature professor, and poetry columnist for Le Devoir and Radio-Canada’s En Toutes Lettres, humility resonates in his writing and is preserved in McGrath’s translation: “One carries oneself along like some bag / one drags about, stuffed with god knows what, / a bag one doesn’t dare to look inside, but leaves behind on a subway bench.” (52) The greatest strength of this collection is that it doesn’t call attention to itself, and yet it addresses the existential questions that serve as the backdrop to our day-to-day lives, much like the city itself. In this elegiac work of translation, McGrath has succeeded in preserving Melançon’s juxtaposition of meaning and meaninglessness that exists at the core of urban life.
Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt is a Montreal-based writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her work has appeared in Riddle Fence, Verge Magazine, and Arbitrage.Visit her at carlyrosalie.com.