canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Light Falls Through You
by Anne Simpson
McClelland & Stewart, 2000

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook

Light Falls Through You is Anne Simpson’s first collection of poetry [see also TDR's special feature on Simpson]. Its publication by M&S is a coup, particularly considering that, while some of Simpson’s poems have placed in various competitions, none of the pieces won first prizes, and M&S tends to gamble only on sure things - i.e. prize winners - in poetry. But then, Simpson’s first novel, Canterbury Beach, has just been released with Penguin. Connections? Are publishers banking on Simpson being the next Anne Carson?

Perhaps, but the point is that there is some very good poetry here. Writing predominantly in effective free verse, Simpson has a predilection for the unrhymed couplet - which makes sense, since the couplet is a flexible form, loose or tight, as required; suitable both to the epiphanic, lyric insight, and narrative momentum - both of which we get in clear language with a startling emotional and intellectual resonance of imagery and metaphor. Light Falls Through You is comprised of three sequences (“The Usual Devices”, “Reliquary” and “Altarpiece”) and twenty-one other poems (under the title, “Souvenirs”).

The witty “Usual Devices” is a sequence structured on two basic metaphors: punctuation and the Trojan War as told in Homer’s Iliad. These metaphors and the unique forms provide an ironic conflating of myth and contemporary history (one irony being the relative absence of punctuation in Homer’s text). The dominant themes are the “usual”: the horror and waste of war; the tragedy of being a woman/object of desire so often facing so many bloodied swords; love, friendship, family, mortality. A comma is “[s]ituated in the pause between one thing / and the next” - viz., Helen’s departure from Menelaus, whose bed, in Helen’s absence, is at least warmed by a servant girl,

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXcurled small as a comma

against his back, a hook that catches on something recalled:
the flicker of Helen’s skirt seen from a window, at night,

a man’s hand, dark against white cloth, on her hip.

A semi-colon is

Like a warrior who gives a backward
glance, hesitating just long enough to be caught by an arrow,

at the gate between one part of the sentence and the other....

[and] XXX ... XXX Helen, that bright conjunction between rival
nations. What replaces her when she departs but a wound...?

In parentheses is wily Odysseus: “What is hidden in parentheses but a glance, / that sharp arc of longing?” The exclamation point of war is “all for glory, which is nothing / but a dead hand passed through a living body”; for a woman who [=] “is equal to / this / the weight of her grief.” In the end, a period: “The end of a long sentence about war...

There’s a pause in the march of words,

all moving in the same direction. A breath, a gasp.
Until the sentence takes it up again, trumpeting a theme

of glory, grown stale with time. But from a Greek ship, far
out on the water, comes a woman’s keening, high and wild.

“Sea of Death”, from the “Souvenirs” section of the book, is another meditation on ancient, mythic texts: it is a reading of the Gilgamesh story from Mesopotamia, specifically the relationship between Gilgamesh (the semi-divine, warrior-king protagonist) and Enkidu (the semi-bestial initial antagonist turned Gilgamesh’s sidekick and soulmate). The myth of Gilgamesh is a particularly resonant one today: one of the story’s harsh lessons is the tragic relationship between the human and the natural - Enkidu becomes the scapegoat of divine retribution for Gilgamesh’s deforesting in order to build a city. Simpson, though, is more interested in the epic’s psychological insight into the nature of grief, suffering, mortality and hubris.

“Altarpiece” is the most difficult sequence, its images moving rapidly among allusions and observations - of the suburban here-and-now, our century of unparalleled destruction and warfare, apocalyptic texts (Hobsbaum) and paintings (Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece of the early 1500’s , a triptych of Christ’s crucifixion). The uneasy question of the sequence is “Where does the century lead us?”; the answer is equally discomforting: “Not to the path of salvation” (IV), for “We should have seen it coming, that / shift from lament to indifference”; at worst, we’re left in a world where “Nothing [is] imagined... nothing / concluded. Everything stutters. We are capable only of observation” (VII) - at least, one might hope, but “Dread comes of looking at something squarely”.

Time claps us awake, and we arrive disoriented - like the rest
of the refugees - at the border. One country is memory,
and the other blessing, where we forget everything we ever knew. (VIII)


XXXXXXXXXXWe end up somewhere
on night’s sea, as one century passes into another,
changing shape - head under wing - as easily
as a bird on water. (XVI)

Is pastiche poetry’s only recourse in the face of a horrific century? “Reliquary” is a fragmentary, poetic-prose piece on the genocidal events in Rwanda. Several of the other poems in Light Falls Through You also record and reflect on our fatal readiness to fuck up. “Perhaps small words, such as love, / still exist, floating through air in the far distance”, says the poet in the collection’s poignant title poem:

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXAfter all, I should have known
you would dissolve into something clear and unresolved,

like water, and that I would put my hands deep in you
and they would come up empty, wet from the touch of my own face.

Geoffrey Cook is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.







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