December 21, 2013

The Slow Animal of Silence: Reading Emily Dickinson on the Winter Solstice

While it isn't exactly about the winter solstice, this poem by Emily Dickinson locks down the wintry silence that comes after a storm, a stillness that contains only the slightest shifts. It's this felt but not seen movement of heat, of life, that links me to the solstice moment, as the solar year turns toward longer, warmer days.

At the beginning of this short poem, we are outside a house after a storm, on a street that has been scoured by wind and snow. The house is battened down, but not quite perfectly; birds have gone into hiding; silence has moved in and occupied the whole place. By the poem's end, we are -- at least in our imaginations -- in the snug shelter of the cellar, where apples and presumably other foods are stored.

The rhythmic pattern is very balanced in this little 11-liner: a tense, regular beat of two-two-three, two-two-three, two-two-three, four-three, the tight rhyme on the end of each three-beat line making the final slant rhyme strange and enigmatic. As always with Dickinson, strict sound play gives room to potent and unusual ideas. The house is "hooked"--what? By the storm, or against the storm: it's not quite certain. Where we might expect to be comfortably observing things, wrapped up in an extra sweater, the storm gets its hooks in; meanwhile, out there in the cold, the sun sends out faint warm drafts as "deputies," representatives of the greater warmth inside, and the greater warmth to come later in the season. Do we feel these warm drafts, or just imagine them? Dickinson creates the environment and places us in it, bestowing on us the gift of heightened senses.

But what about this ample Steed that belongs to Silence? The word steed suggests spirit and swiftness, yet this Steed, in addition to being ample, generous, is plodding, that is heavy of movement, laborious. I'm not sure what to make of this apparent oxymoron. Is it a soft place in the poem, a not-quite-right moment? Even such a fleeting hint of a lapse in the Dickinson oeuvre sends me back to the poem, to dictionaries, to awareness of my own ignorance, to try and sort it out.

This is a workhorse kind of silence, a silence that overtakes by weight rather than speed, that goes everywhere the birds have been--that is, on the updrafts and air currents. The large, slow animal of silence moves in and takes over. What a conception! It is exactly what that post-storm feeling is like.

Meanwhile, in the cellar, in a basket of apples, one quietly shifts; look, says Emily, loosening the tension ever so slightly. The slant rhyme turns away from strictness, but toward what kind of play? How the apple is moving is in its slow decay.

(All images courtesy of Red Edge Images)

Emily Dickinson: A Poem

Because Solstice, because light and more light as we move into the hardest parts of winter, because Emily, a poem:

Like Brooms of Steel
The Snow and Wind
Had swept the Winter Street -
The House was hooked
The Sun sent out
Faint Deputies of Heat -
Where rode the Bird
The Silence tied
His ample - plodding Steed
The Apple in the Cellar snug
Was all the one that played.

courtesy of Red Edge Images

(Poem 1241, from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin; also listed as poem 1252 in Thomas H. Johnson's edition of 1955)

And I don't normally do this on my blog, but here's a link to "Solstice Night," first published at Encore, later in The Rapids (Brick 2012) and Best Canadian Poetry 2012 (Tightrope Books).








December 16, 2013

In Conversation with Joe Rosenblatt

Joe Rosenblatt was one of my first poetry teachers, and the only one whose personal electrical force field was so powerful it once made the borrowed digital watch he was wearing go haywire. I recall him ripping the watch from his arm and placing it on the table; we all stared as the hours and minutes and seconds turned over at dizzying speed. I don't remember what happened next. Somehow we went on. Now Joe is about to celebrate his 80th birthday. He has generously shared some musings on poetry, painting and the spill between the two. Happy birthday, Joe!

Susan Gillis: What brought you to poetry -- or what brought poetry to you?

Joe Rosenblatt:  I was always the dreamer from Day One. In public school Mr. Scott my English teacher believed in Rudyard Kipling and I digested his poetry and of course the then British Empire and its virtues. If that's the right word. I guess the glory of the Empire. Canadian history wasn't in the curriculum back in the days when I was in public school. Suffice it to say I loved British poetry Tennyson, A.E. Housman and later in the Sixties, the iconic American poet Emily Dickinson was the centre of my poetic universe.

Joe Rosenblatt, Sexy Tree 2. "This is not a bad drawing," said Joe in his email. 

SG: When I think about the many things I enjoy in your work--sound, colour, surprise among them--the one I want to ask you about is the line. You work the line over time, as language in poems, and over space, as a visual element in your paintings and drawings.  How and where do you draw it between poetry and painting--or do you draw it at all?

JR:  I was so influenced by Emily, especially her bee poems, that I started an experimental series on bees, capturing their sounds and sights in Allan Gardens in Toronto back in 1962. Now I am a conservative technician in terms of metre in poetry, having studied Louise Bogan, the American poet and her handbook of poetic terms. I was also influenced by W.B. Yeats and need I mention William Blake. You see I am much of a magpie stealing cadences and poetic concepts from the Immortal bards of the English language. I must also mention that the Canadian poet and a close friend of mine Gwendolyn MacEwen influenced my style of writing poetry, her mystical explorations into the Unknown especially captured my muse. Which brings me to my visual art: for me the tones, hot and cold in colours of my paintings, state that painting is another way of expressing poetic concepts and my visual art and poetry meld together as all the characters in my bestiary in my poems spill over to the canvas of my paintings.

Joe Rosenblatt, Gatorpals
SG: What's inspiring you these days?

JR: I am working on a prose work, an experimental novel titled Snake City. The hero is a snake and the humans are a despicable lot. And of course I am painting away. This is my old age poem (read it here). I shall be eighty on Boxing Day.

Joe Rosenblatt, Happy
Toronto-born, BC-based poet-painter Joe Rosenblatt has written more than 20 books, and his poems have appeared in many anthologies of Canadian poetry and in translation in Italy. His awards include the Governor General's award for poetry and the BC Book Prize.  His art works are represented by the Qualicum Frameworks Gallery in Qualicum Beach, Artfitterz in Nanaimo and the Rouge Gallery in Saskatoon. His drawings and paintings are represented in many private and public collections in Canada. His most recent book , Dark Fish & Other Infernos (Black Moss, 2011), is a savagely satirical epistolary exchange with Vancouver poet Catherine Owen.

Joe Rosenblatt: A Poem

Joe Rosenblatt

Shadows are lurking in the daylight.
Tentacles of my being stir and touch
mottled spirits congealed in a wound.

Old age is a tree with decaying bark
where voices trapped in cellulose
rage at sprouting rootlets in the earth.


Among unseen spores adrift in mildewed air
I’d be reborn, nourished by the forest floor:
I could become a child to some spongy mother


A hawk-eyed Horus awaits us in these woods.
This bird of the Highest Order is in his roost.
He’s there to snatch my soul and skyward bolt.


Shadows are lurking in the daylight.
Elfin spirits stir under decaying leaves.
We serve as food for famished fungi.


Or I could be mould on a crooked branch
where woodpeckers drumming for grubs
lay frantic claim to the same living tree.
Yellow tailed warblers gossip by a brook
where spores of drifting memory desire
Oyster mushrooms on a soggy tree trunk.

Read my conversation with Joe Rosenblatt here


December 4, 2013

When the City Goes Dark: Xi Chuan's "Power Outage"

Morning, pearly-skied. A light snow marks branches, rooflines, overhead wires and hydro poles. Bright lights are twinkling in the distance over the elevated highway where it approaches the crumbling Turcotte Interchange. Traffic is gathering.

I missed the famous ice storm that paralyzed Montreal in 1998, but still hear stories about how it brought people together in communities of friends, neighbours and strangers. I hear other stories too, about rivalry and greed, exploitation, isolation, but these aren't the ones that make it into the conventional accounts of the hushed beauty that lasted weeks and acts of generosity large and small. One thing that does come up, though, in any telling, is the sobering insight into just how dependent we are on the electrical power grid.
Living in the city, I depend on all the public services: snow clearing, garbage collection, clean water, heat and electricity. Paradoxically, the shared enterprise that provides them, the political and economic entity, allows us city-dwellers to live as though we're independent. What connects us allows our disconnection; we can remain strangers. We can go around in our cars, in line-ups, anywhere there is the stress of numbers, without much regard for strangers, for one another, as though our disregard doesn't matter.

Until the shared enterprise fails, and it does.

What got me thinking about this recently was a poem by Chinese poet Xi Chuan, "Power Outage," translated by Lucas Klein. (Read more about Xi Chuan and Lucas Klein's work here.)

How did I not know abut this poet Xi Chuan until now? As so often happens, I came across his work, and Klein's commentary on it, accidentally, in the archives of the now-defunct Cerise Press, while looking for something else. I forget what; Xi Chuan's poems have entirely replaced it.

Recently in conversation Phil Hall pointed to a source of continuing interest in lyric poetry: that the personal is political. This poem reminds me the reverse is also true.

There's no happy discovery at the end of Xi Chuan's poem such as there is in my sentimental framing of the ice storm stories. When the power goes out, the poem-speaker is cast into a disordered state. The darkness reveals small sounds far and near, traces of human presence in "wind chimes and a cat's footbeats," an engine that stops and a song that goes on. Loneliness and isolation are almost palpable.

Then "time turns back," and darkness takes on a deeper tone, as living crows converge around a plate of crow meat, and blackness engulfs the poem's speaker entirely. Despair acquires an odour and a name: power outage. The poem-speaker is pitched into an impossible, subsuming blackness. All he can do is summon a frustrated mutter as he recognizes his own wordless shadow.

I don't think Xi Chuan's poem is primarily about urban alienation, the paradox I first responded to in it. The failure of shared enterprise has deep resonance in the years after the Tian'anmen Square protests. This poem was published in 1992, three years after those protests were crushed. I'm aware that I'm reading it from cultural and aesthetic perspectives that are not the same as those it was written from. Yet it reaches across that gap, and connects me to these strangers, and to this desolation, with such bright power I can't stop thinking about it.

Images courtesy of Lucas Klein, rgbstock and stock.xchng


 Xi Chuan translated by Lucas Klein

A sudden power outage, and I’m convinced
I live in a developing nation

a nation where people read by moonlight
a nation that abolished imperial exams

a sudden power outage, and I hear
wind chimes and a cat’s footbeats upstairs

in the distance an engine stops with a thud
the battery-powered radio beside me still singing

once the power’s out, time turns back quickly:
candles light up the little eateries

the fat kid munching on crow meat notices
crows gathering on trees

and the pitch blackness before me
like a seaswell womb

a mother hangs herself from rafters
each room its own special odor

Power outage. I touch a slipper
but mutter: “Quit hiding, matches!”

in the candlelight, I see my own
great big wordless shadow cast upon the wall

from Xi, Chuan. Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems, translated by Lucas Klein. (NY: New Directions, 2012) By permission of the translator and New Directions Publishing.