Review of A Clearing

A Clearing

In these difficult, divisive, often overwhelming times, all of us crave a clear, quiet space, where, as Louise Carson’s title poem would have it,

… the old can sit, the children play,

where the wild fruit grows,

where we spread our clothing to dry.

To clear. Clarify.  Make clear.  In a way all stories and poems do this — make a clearing out of the tangle of our lives, distill an essence, lead us to certain if problematic terms.  In Carson’s collection, our attention is drawn by the very first poem to the play of imagination and language in space, to the forming of “meaningful shapes” out of words that “lie on the page/and hang in the air.” In both senses, however, of lie.

Carson’s is ostensibly a quiet world. The poet lives quite alone in the outskirts — west beyond Montreal’s West Island, to be precise — in a house surrounded by fields of grass and trees, with an extensive garden in the back. A motif, especially in the first section of her book, is passing things repeatedly on solitary walks — a fox seen twice (the same fox? or different?), a turtle seen four times on the same day.  The effect is of slowing time down.  Worthy subjects are things that stand out in the stillness: a muskrat diving.  A yellow bird. Daisies.  Tulips.  A petal, which becomes “an inward slit-eyed glance/a holy tongue of fire.”  Feathers in a tree.

A number of these poems achieve masterful concentration.  In this fourteen-line poem (a kind of sonnet?), a cactus becomes emblematic in the affirmation of its flowering amidst all its prickly ungainliness:

About the epicactus

Who knew that this irregular, no,

gangling frame, its intermittent arms

attenuations punctuated with hair,

and with no claim to beauty

save its dull green, its weird silhouette

doubled, dark against a yellow wall,

in form a thin vegetable scream,

 

had hid such a sun of a flower,

a blend of orange, white, gold and cream,

to blaze one day, one night, to a depth

of daring, glowing, open lust,

at which we stare, creation’s door ajar.

And then the slow wilt, the drop, till…ah…

the green vein stops at a calloused scar.

Lest we gain the impresson, however, that Carson is primarily a nature poet, it bears pointing out that a number of her significant poems bring in urban, even menacing atmospheres.  In McDonald’s, 32nd Avenue, Lachine, she vividly describes a drive-by world of cars, motorcycles, white women who “examine prospective customers” (serving women? women of the night?), black kids lounging, a sultry air ripe with sexual adventure:

I turn the key to check the time and the headlights play

on the thighs, smooth and hairless, of a girl on rollerblades.

Passively she glides.

 

Her boyfriend on his bike smiles,

his arm around her waist, and tows her

back to their place.

The collection A Clearing is organized into three parts.  The first part, with the exception of one poem that mentions snow and skiing, is summery in its atmosphere; the second part takes us through a more wintery, lonely landscape/mindscape; the third continues on this sombre drift, in pairs and triplets of thematically related poems, towards a partial, if uncertain, redemption. A number of poems speak of long, lean years of penny-pinching survival — “living freelance, untenured, unpartnered,/…wrapped in layers of wool / found at church basement sales.” Hard realities are bravely evoked and confronted: single motherhood, abortion, personal abandonment; an excellent eulogy for a piano student who died far too young; three “old man” poems that deal with, as one would expect, aging and mortality; the Rwandan genocide; Anne Frank, and Superman; and a number of ironic, fiercely acerbic poems addressing topics as diverse as Barbie dolls and God.

There is, though, redemption: a dream of various lovers that leaves the poet “relieved…to have finished acting.” And in the final poem, a sense of grace and amazement at a “brief, mad day, worth anything” — and for the reader as well as writer, the rewarding realization of a number of hard-won, luminous truths.


— Brian Campbell Montreal Serai

More Reviews of this title

A Clearing

American poet T. S. Eliot once famously wrote “April is the cruelest month.” By way of contrast, the Academy of American Poets and the League of Canadian Poets, choosing to infuse Eliot’s harsh pronouncement with a soupçon of mercy, instead call it National Poetry Month.

And, with a week left in April, you still have time to rediscover your favourite poets and delight in their artistry once again.

Or, you can follow my example, and delve into the poetry of St-Lazare’s breakout poet and author, Louise Carson. Her works have appeared in numerous literary collections over the years and garnered several awards, including selection for inclusion in The Best Canadian Poetry 2013; the short-list for FreeFall Magazine’s annual poetry contest, three times; and a recent Manitoba Magazine Award.

And earlier this month, Carson launched A Clearing, the first full-length collection of her works. A delicate masterpiece, it has been well worth the wait.

Although Robin Williams’ character in the movie Dead Poets Society chose to celebrate dead poets, we also have an obligation to poets still living. Toiling mostly in anonymity, these committed souls struggle to challenge our complacency, to guide us toward new ways of looking at the worlds we inhabit, worlds unique and ill-defined, worlds embedded within ourselves, and beyond.

And that’s what Carson’s A Clearing manages to achieve particularly well, fostering glimpses into ourselves even as she approaches the person that she is in a many-sided, intensely intimate way.

“The eyes are the mirror of the soul and reflect everything that seems to be hidden;” wrote Paulo Coelho in Manuscript Found in Accra, “and like a mirror, they also reflect the person looking into them.”

The magic and mystery of Carson’s poetry lie in her eyes, in her unblinking, incisive, searing eyes, mirrored eyes that even as they hide nothing, reveal nothing – a paradox so disarming that the reader, unaware, is drawn ever deeper within her spell.

“It takes guts to go into the woods
when you’re used to fields and orchards and lanes.
All that stuff about darkness – you fear.
But there’s usually a clearing somewhere in there,” she declares in the book’s signature poem, "A Clearing."

Carson allows that this poem mirrors the place she occupies in the arc her current life is carving out, that it indicates a cleansing of the emotions and experiences of the past, perhaps a clearing of the slate. “In this collection, each poem has a purpose,” she says, “one that reflects the up/down/up/down of life itself. "A Clearing" has its definite position in the book. It was not randomly placed.”

Structure is important to Carson. A professional musician and former jazz pianist who has also sung in the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company, she pays close attention to the music and rhythms of her poetry, even to the deliberate positioning of particular vowels and consonants.

“Sounds are very specific,” she says. “How they are received by the human ear strongly influences emotion, and to me emotion is the very essence of poetry. I double-check by making a point of always speaking the poem aloud before it takes its final shape.”

Carson, who refers to herself as a worker in the arts, has already taken the next step in her artistic travels: the publication of her first novel, to be released in May. Entitled Executor, it is an international mystery centred on a Canadian English professor who has ventured to China to adopt his third daughter, and unwittingly becomes entangled with the international organ trade. Suddenly, he is fighting for his life. Filled with drama, excitement and bone-chilling suspense, this is one book you might not want to read by yourself, alone, at night.

Ms Carson, we can hardly wait!


— Bill Young Montreal Gazette

A Clearing

American poet T. S. Eliot once famously wrote “April is the cruelest month.” By way of contrast, the Academy of American Poets and the League of Canadian Poets, choosing to infuse Eliot’s harsh pronouncement with a soupçon of mercy, instead call it National Poetry Month.

And, with a week left in April, you still have time to rediscover your favourite poets and delight in their artistry once again.

Or, you can follow my example, and delve into the poetry of St-Lazare’s breakout poet and author, Louise Carson. Her works have appeared in numerous literary collections over the years and garnered several awards, including selection for inclusion in The Best Canadian Poetry 2013; the short-list for FreeFall Magazine’s annual poetry contest, three times; and a recent Manitoba Magazine Award.

And earlier this month, Carson launched A Clearing, the first full-length collection of her works. A delicate masterpiece, it has been well worth the wait.

Although Robin Williams’ character in the movie Dead Poets Society chose to celebrate dead poets,we also have an obligation to poets still living. Toiling mostly in anonymity, these committed souls struggle to challenge our complacency, to guide us toward new ways of looking at the worlds we inhabit, worlds unique and ill-defined, worlds embedded within ourselves, and beyond.

And that’s what Carson’s A Clearing manages to achieve particularly well, fostering glimpses into ourselves even as she approaches the person that she is in a many-sided, intensely intimate way.

“The eyes are the mirror of the soul and reflect everything that seems to be hidden;” wrote Paulo Coelho in Manuscript Found in Accra, “and like a mirror, they also reflect the person looking into them.”

The magic and mystery of Carson’s poetry lie in her eyes, in her unblinking, incisive, searing eyes, mirrored eyes that even as they hide nothing, reveal nothing – a paradox so disarming that the reader, unaware, is drawn ever deeper within her spell.

“It takes guts to go into the woods
when you’re used to fields and orchards and lanes.
All that stuff about darkness – you fear.
But there’s usually a clearing somewhere in there,” she declares in the book’s signature poem, A Clearing.

Carson allows that this poem mirrors the place she occupies in the arc her current life is carving out, that it indicates a cleansing of the emotions and experiences of the past, perhaps a clearing of the slate. “In this collection, each poem has a purpose,” she says, “one that reflects the up/down/up/down of life itself. A Clearing has its definite position in the book. It was not randomly placed.”

Structure is important to Carson. A professional musician and former jazz pianist who has also sung in the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company, she pays close attention to the music and rhythms of her poetry, even to the deliberate positioning of particular vowels and consonants.

“Sounds are very specific,” she says. “How they are received by the human ear strongly influences emotion, and to me emotion is the very essence of poetry. I double-check by making a point of always speaking the poem aloud before it takes its final shape.”

Carson, who refers to herself as a worker in the arts, has already taken the next step in her artistic travels: the publication of her first novel, to be released in May. Entitled Executor, it is an international mystery centred on a Canadian English professor who has ventured to China to adopt his third daughter, and unwittingly becomes entangled with the international organ trade. Suddenly, he is fighting for his life. Filled with drama, excitement and bone-chilling suspense, this is one book you might not want to read by yourself, alone, at night.

Ms Carson, we can hardly wait!


— Bill Young Montreal Gazette

A Clearing

The title poem is a visceral composition of the old and new, while other work displays her adept use of the pattern or picture poem, as well as artwork and music. Throughout the collection the persona of the poet explores the meaning of words, how “they lie on the page/ and hang in the air” (“in a visual world”). The words are “so pale” they appear as white as a page (“abstract”). A poetry thief is just a juvenile delinquent who invaded her space (“Stolen”). An angel fills the page (“Angel, linocut on linen”).

In Dialogues, Exchanges, Conversations: Canadian Women Poets and their Male Mentors, Louise contributed this, "I realized that, with a few exceptions, I was reading dead poets while Jon [Torell] was reading work by living ones." (p. 24) Further, "Jon taught me to look at the poem on the page and to think about whether the form could enhance the meaning. He and I tortured each other over punctuation, extra spaces, line breaks." Ultimately, the lesson learned was "Love the words" (p. 28). See: "The Light Alive", both the title of her essay and of her poem which serves to convey the spiritual component to his mentorship.

There is a strong sense of enumeration originating with another persona who carefully apportions experiences by counting, “Twice”, “Four times” (“The Turtle”), “seven months” (“Waiting”), “three-week hum” (“The fields begin to sheathe themselves”), “On all fours”) (“Snow fort in carport”), “you at fifteen” (“Boy”), “three woodpiles” (“The old man drops”), “Seventy-five fit” (“#4 Mermaid Road”), “one cheek” (“Mars”), “fifty dollars” (“on the death of one”), “six months” (“11:23 a.m.”), titles of “Twice this year and twice last year” and “29 words on solitude”.

The natural world of emblems contains totemic animals, fox, muskrat, wolf, lynx, coyote. There are exotic locations, such as the Middle East, Rwanda, the planet Mars, the Kalahari. She defines herself as that which she is not (an old man, a child) as much as by what she is: “each woman”, “she mounts behind him” (“It’s just for laughs”). The mother, mid-wife, mistress, “It smells of the male” (“Construction site”). Venus (“#4 Mermaid Road”), the she-male (“supermarket, Pie Neuf”), and of “Woman, sitting”. The women are “like wet flowers” (“Beggar, Namur Station”), while she feels as dry as the desert. See also: “I am not a man”.

She blends the socioeconomic with mythology, politics, and poetics. In “Reading Neruda, 2009”, she realizes his mentorship was based on intuition, since she is only aged fifty-two now. She need not apply to be herself (“One morning”). She closes the collection with, “Brief, mad day, worth anything.” (“Grace”) Even the young are practicing to become old.  


— Anne Burke Feminist Caucus

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