canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Garments of the Known
by Norm Sacuta
Nightwood editions, 2002

Reviewed by Alex Boyd

The first book by Alberta poet Norm Sacuta, Garments of the Known, shows promise even as it is a frustrating mixture of clarity and obscurity. The striking poem "Exposure" details a hailstorm while camping with his parents. As his mother "punched canvas to make stones fall off," he caught his parents frozen in the light, an odd and memorable instant:

Together in one light
for a moment his lowered body
her upheld hands,
made the shape of a deer.

Finally in the morning, after it is necessary for his father to kick with both boots several times to open the door, they examine "the hailís white eyes within the ice," see the trailer steaming "like a heart cracked open." Itís an example of the kind of poem I found extremely worthwhile in the book.

Some poets (E.E. Cummings, for example) have demonstrated that poetry doesnít need to have complete closure or neatly clarified themes to be effective, but poetry does need something to make it striking and memorable to the reader. Without this, it often seems that the impact of a poem is muted, certainly in conventional poetry that doesnít have innovation on its side. Sacuta has a tendency to move in and out of focus, to switch from the kind of clarity I mention above, to obscurity. In this section of the poem "What of the Night?" I find the meaning difficult to pin down:

I wish this all for you, all this and more:
not death nor the swelling
each day as days go down with blood,
but, rather the pain
that my past doesnít concern you,
and in that knowledge,
not finding what the night contains.
Knowing your best friend went out, danced,
stepped into flesh that left no mark
then came back and said
absolutely nothing.

After reading this several times, I still find it mostly impenetrable and am left to make assumptions. The end of the poem makes it clear itís about "hating so completely," but still hasnít explained why in an emotional tone that goes unsupported by concrete examples. His poems that explained a little more were far superior, and I found it unfortunate when he buried his talent in obscure statements. The experiences of Norm Sacuta appear to cover a variety of landscapes and situations, and I wanted to read the poems without guessing at his meaning.

Alex Boyd is a Toronto writer of poems, essays and fiction, with samples online at







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