canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida
by Roo Borson
McLelland & Stewart, 2004

Reviewed by J. Mark Smith

One of the finer things in Roo Borson’s Griffin Prize winning book is “Persimmons,” a prose narrative about the fruit of the trees she associates with her mother’s garden, with a Japanese man who was her mother’s gardener, with her own adolescence, and with her mother’s death. An understated meditation on grief and our attachment to the world, here are two sentences from it:

I had taken it upon myself to remember who, among the members of my family, preferred them just ‘gelled’ — translucent but still firm and buttery — and who liked them fully ripened, with a blowsy fragrance that meant a clear orange-flecked water would seep from the fruit the instant it was touched by a knife. But that fall, sent to the plant room to select dessert for a number of guests seated at the dining table, all of whom could see me through the French doors as I crouched, one after the other slowly palpating the persimmons, I felt myself flush, and turned my back to them. (49)

I quote these sentences as an exhibit to begin with, because Short Journey Upriver stands or falls as a collection of poetry on the twenty pages of much more challenging free verse that make up its first section, “Summer Grass.” The rest of the book is made up of a medley of short prose pieces on travel, nature observation, and literary appreciation; and a series of very short poems belonging to the broad and inclusive family of North Americanized haiku-like forms. As the passage above shows (excepting the placement of “one after the other”), Borson handles prose well.

The sentences of “Summer Grass,” on the other hand, press coherent meaning to the limit — they “change pitch continuously,” in one of Borson’s metaphors for her own procedure —, and so court nonsense to such a degree that I have come close to finding them too inconsequential to be of more than passing interest. Only if read in the light, or twilight, of grief, do they make some kind of poetic sense. And then the impression they leave me with is ‘musical’:

XXXXXXXXXXXXAnd when the pages,
cool and soft, intend a melody, remember
you weren’t here before and you won’t be again,
when you go the whole world goes with you…
The separately titled sections of “Summer Grass” add up to one long poem. The whole of it is concerned with death, aging, and the lonely inevitability of absolute loss, and so with a traditional but now maybe impossible (eastern) poetico-philosophical training in love and acceptance of the world.

In places, the poetry of “Summer Grass” is immensely delicate, as subtle as free verse at its best should be: that is, one can hear in it a finer cadence than is possible in metred verse. In other places the poem drifts, absent-mindedly, into blank verse:

XXXXXXXXXXand home is just a place you started out,
the only place you still know how to think from, … (3)

the final estimates for the real world (20)

another might, and will, one day, fulfill (13)
The sequence, so far as it is about anything, represents a speaker’s awareness of natural cycles, of the year’s perpetual turning. James Thomson’s The Seasons, I suppose, is the English-language granddaddy of this sort of work. “Summer Grass” is, of course, not an 18th c. loco-descriptive poem. In between then and now, there was Wordsworth, who noticed that we are not “punctual” beings, even when walking through a landscape, that we are “far diffused” in time and space. Later there was the linguistic derangement of poetic possibility associated with late 19th c. and early 20th c. names like Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, the reverberations of which continue to spread.

I can’t quite get a fix on how Borson understands her own relation to the more autistic varieties of modernism, or whether that relation has changed over her career. But in “Summer Grass,” at least, her feeling for the combinatorial possibilities of words in sentences, and of sentences in larger units of discourse, seems closer to John Ashbery’s, say, than to Alice Munro’s. The loco-descriptive wanderer in this poem is the mind alone, not bound by space, nor by normative syntax, nor even by ‘good’ writing. Being present to the world means each season “seems the only condition possible, / candid while it lasts.” But every season is also “old news,” defined by everything that it has lost (or we have lost in it), and coming to us via “harmonics that depend… / on previous conditions.”

The mournfulness and deep self-absorption of Rilke is occasionally heard in “Summer Grass,” sometimes as if in an awkwardly translated approximation:

XXXXXXXXXXXXWhosoever’s children
are not practising now will never learn their instruments —
(“Rivers to the Sea,” 17)

(Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone… )

[“Autumn Day,” transl. Stephen Mitchell])

One large thought, of a Rilkean sort, about time and representation (“the disgust the dead must feel / toward portraiture or music”) appears in an apparently unmotivated digression at the end of a beautiful passage alluding to Chinese or Japanese poetic traditions:
XXXXXXXXXXXXTo set off, instead, on a May morning,
as convention dictates, whether south or north,
autumn or spring, the commentaries decline to tell us.
But the line bends as the river bends, the cherries of that
other time are pink and dark and sweet, an allegorical painting
standing in for the world in the level light of dawn,
morning along the river, growing warm. Who lives here?
Heron standing sentry, bees in the bee tree at noon.
To live to tell old news, without the disgust the dead must feel
XXXXXXXXtoward portraiture, or music — harmonics that depend,
XXXXXXXXas always, on previous conditions. Anyway,
XXXXXXXXto change pitch continuously

XXXXXXXXmight be one aim. (“Rivers to the Sea,” 19)
The a-logical effects can be wonderful, as in the sentence beginning “But the line bends…” and its close: “morning along the river, growing warm”. A sequence of non-sequiturs works (when it works) by substituting for intelligibility a communicable mood: by putting in the place of paraphrasable sentences the murmur of not-quite-sense (“this failure to / communicate is only partial” [8]). But if the sentence rhythms lose contact with mood, the reader cannot engage. I have said that “to change pitch continuously” sounds like a formula for the ambitiousness of the whole “Summer Grass” sequence, but here the change of tone (“Anyway…) is itself disconcerting.

The a-logic of dream can organize a compelling and quietly disturbing imagism:
and then once more the sleepers
lie scattered in sleep,
butterflies tumbling down a stone road,
lovers holding up their hair— (22)
But it’s an exceptional example. For the most part, Borson’s net in “Summer Grass” is not out to catch this kind of poetic fish. Her method — of discursive loosening and “partial communication” — does, however, pull up long strings of hardly connected phrases, most of which seem to represent fleeting states of mind:
XXXXXXXXXXXXThe lone traffic
sinking, with lots of pedal, into the near distance,
a magpie maneuvering through another topologically impossible
fragment (music) — and I was wakeful,
not only with the prescience of an astute pet that knows
where home is and that we’re leaving,
but something more, or it felt like more,
tinkering with faint probabilities: the sudden urge
to take up mathematics for a second time,
the premise that one might as well
get up. (5)
It’s not the focus on self, or lack of ‘logic,’ that makes this passage tedious, so much as combinations of words that I can only call clumsy (“lone traffic”; “magpie maneuvring”; “topologically impossible”; “the prescience of an astute pet”; “tinkering with faint probabilities” [can a probability be “faint”?]; “the premise that…”). Whole lines are weak too — “the premise that one might as well”; “but something more, or it felt like more” — not only because the sentence that moves through them barely makes sense, but because the sentence has no syntactical energy.

I wonder what gets lost in the non-articulation. Borson jokes about it in a later section: “So here they are, / in the joints of bamboo: / the poems I meant to write.” (61) The more somber, grammatically mysterious formulation in “Summer Grass” runs as follows:

That we gave it at least
the ritual burial of not being talked about, as it lay
forever beneath the sky on a public road. (11)

True to form, “it” has no antecedent. Such silences, I would say, have only an accidental relation to finitude or inexpressibility, never mind taboo: they are achieved in fact by an intentional stunting of technique.

The movement of voice represented in the following passage seems wise and right about both nightmares and the “kitchen sounds that let us know we’re loved”:

XXXXXXXXXXXXAll night the miseries of others
gnawing at our bones. But dreams
are only dreams, unless they’re the dead:
elaborate in autumn’s gold frame, or those resonant
kitchen sounds that let us know we’re loved. Tea,
wheat, sand, water, paper, gold — a life in which,
if you pause, you can hear the dust settling,
in which summer nears winter and disappears,
each seems the only condition possible,
candid while it lasts. Basho,
surely this is your doing. (“River,” 13)

But then shades of readerly doubt undercut the structure of the passage: is it the dead who are “elaborate in autumn’s gold frame”? Are they in “those resonant / kitchen sounds”? Does the colon not then indicate a meaningful join? And re “candid”: even with some awareness of an obsolete sense of the word, I can’t quite see how the adjective is supposed to modify the noun. Compared to these problems, the non-sequitur address to Basho isn’t much of a problem (we can assume that “this” refers to something like “my own attentiveness to the moment”).

The loosening of syntax and of sentence-to-sentence coherence in “Summer Grass” allows a strange, delicate music to emerge from certain passages. This ‘music’ can’t really be pointed to, since it is expressed in the continuous changefulness of the multi-sentence units. It inhabits the seams between sentences. The very same compositional method, unfortunately, also produces flat, banal stretches that lack the traditional values of either prose or verse.

Short Journey has now been covered in Canadian poetry awards, probably a mixed blessing for the author. “Summer Grass,” though, could have lasting power.

J. Mark Smith is a Toronto poet, teacher and critic.







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