canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Concrete and Wild Carrot
by Margaret Avison
Brick Books, 2002

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

As Gerard Manley Hopkins stretched the sonnet to breaking point so Margaret Avison stretches free verse, making line-breaks at points that double the reader's attention. She teases word-order out of grammar into perception and creates arrhythmic patterns that halt and haunt the reader:
xxxxxxxxx... We
find our own level

as prairie, auburn or
snow-streaming, sounds forever
the almost limitless.

(Rising Dust)
While patterns, 'colour or texture and/ singles out a rhythm/ almost its own, again,/ anticipating design', undergird this particular volume of poetry, trees are the linking image of the pattern. 'These listening leaves' (Responses) 'are quieted here, warmed and fed/ by the good old trees and/ the shining little ones' (Ramsden). They mark the passing year as 'Trees that were only sticks/ in the overcast' become 'soft and full of catkins' and Avison can be seen momentarily as one of 'the newly shampooed children being/ readied for the party' (Pacing the Turn of the Year). For Avison, no matter her age, sees the world lightly and with delight, noting the underlying wildness that like the Wild carrot, or Queen Anne's Lace, is universally known and grows in unexpected and often dark places--she treats that darkness playfully.

Yet, she probes the uncertainties of language for the immutabilities that lie just outside vision. The Bible is as familiar to her as the concrete byways of Toronto and she probes passages for deeper meaning as in 'Four Words' where she explores "what good shall I do you unless what I say contains something by way of revelation, or elightenment, or prophecy, or instruction?" 1.Cor.14:6 REB. And indeed Avison reveals, enlightens, probes the future and instructs.

She reveals the city of Toronto in poems such as 'Lament for Byways':
The harrowed city
swirls with grit;
it's thundery
with chutes emitting
or in 'Pacing the Turn of the Year' when, in the midst of a soliloquy on trees she notices
for everybody, on bikes
or park benches or
wandering along

the way
the city buses, dazed,
wended their way anywhere
on the odd quiet morning
Her poetry enlightens by imparting her spiritual understanding of the Bible - as in 'On a Maundy Thursday Walk' in which she reflects on the fifth day of creation and connects it with the Maundy Thursday of Holy Week.

Avison instructs in 'The Whole Story' where she writes of Jesus in the tomb:
behind that stone I must be sure
of deadness, to allay
self-doubt, i.e. so nearly to ignore
the love and sacrifice for our
And probes the future: 'There is a node. There, one day,/ all ways will/ swiftly converge. .. ' (Prospecting)

She looks at death and beyond to a place unimaginable where she will confront God:
xxxxxxxhe had to
steer his fair steady days and nights
to some as yet (I'm guessing)
point of light beyond that
abysmal (other people's) living
and in other poems, 'There's no finality out here' (Dead Ends), 'I anchor there as to a lifeline,' (Uncircular). Always there are intimations that Avison sees death not as darkness but as light, and an ongoing light. Perhaps her predilection for death lies in her age, experience and the knowledge that she has not too far to go before exploring this last great adventure.

While Gerard Manley Hopkins brought a profound emotional quality to his writing, there is objectivity about Avison's poetry that grants the reader distance and perspective on the wider complexities of life, death, the cycles of time, and the limitations of language, without losing track of the details that delineate each day.

JOANNA M. WESTON M.A., married, 3 sons, two cats. A chocaholic writer. Has had poetry published in anthologies and journals, and a middle-reader THE WILLOW-TREE GIRL online and in print, 2003.






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