canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Satie’s Sad Piano
by Carolyn Marie Souaid
George Amabile, Editor
Signature Editions, 2005

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

Most people know where they were on November 22, 1963, when they heard that John F. Kennedy had died. Few people know where they were on September 28, 2000, when they heard that former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau had died. The difference is in the age and manner of death of the deceased: Kennedy murdered at 46, Trudeau died at 82 of old age.

Both carried history and conflict with them. Souaid elected to write a book of poems about the effects of Trudeau’s death. The news ‘thrusts Venus, a 50-something woman ­ suddenly, unexpectedly ­ back in time through memories of a past affair, including an extended flashback to 1968 at the height of Trudeaumania.’ The backcover blurb gives this insight into the poems within. Without this information it would hard for the average reader to understand what is happening.

There are eight characters or voices in the book, listed at the beginning. Notes, without the necessary page numbers that they refer to, are given at the end. The characters lack the differentiated voices that one would expect of individuals beyond an early poem in which they speak, as with Venus in her first appearance:

There was never any summer to begin with.
Or maybe, maybe it just abandoned us
weeks before the chirping light could stir
the tight-lipped greens of spring.
What do I know?
This quiet patch of weeds leaning in
from the graveyard, leaving
a small depression in the air.
Turned down work today, couldn’t stand
the thought of all those hungry faces
looking to me for answers. (p.24)

Venus is remembering, looking back down the spin of years, to an earlier romance. She stays home from work, unable to handle other people’s comments about Trudeau’s death, depressed by her own memories.

Beyond the first or second poem of any set in which a character speaks the poems lose their individuality, become poems on a theme, and the theme not easy to elucidate. The poems of Rose, the fetus, could as well be poems from the rose worn by Trudeau: ‘death is just another day/ we open to.’ (p.29)

Ignore the room, ignore the lighting, which is all wrong,
ignore the table and its meandering wood grain,
the chipped vase, ignore the rose,
which never really bloomed before going black.
Trust the emotion, instead, the fisted pain,
the abstraction,
the godawful, stratified darkness
heaped, in perpetuity, on your back. (p.34)

Trudeau himself does not speak in the poems. He is a presence, a story told, a poem written, a metaphor. The story of his walk in the snow during which he decided to resign is told obliquely by Mont Royal:

Routine, yes, though dawn is sluggish
and unpredictable, a certain melancholy
clouding the sky. An exception to the rule,
forecast one Biblical, metaphoric night:
Three Wise Men, one stooped alone.
His jeweled question wrapped in simple cloth
for the stars. To stay or to go.
And then an unexpected turn of events.
No deep magisterial voice booming down
from above, but serenity inserting itself,
resignation. The whitest angel hair
snowing down on him, hushed. (p.17)

The reader needs to know Trudeau’s life-story well, to be aware enough to recognize the stories within the poems, to have collected articles, in essence to be a ‘Trudeaumaniac’:

‘Even in dearth, he looms
larger than life,
with the sodium clouds
& the gun-slung cold. (p.21)

. . .
This is how he came to us: cool, detached.
With unblinking panache. (p.37)
Margaret appears, seductive and fun. The three sons are mentioned; Michel, called by his family name ‘Micha’ in the poem that tells of his death. Wisely, Souaid uses Trudeau’s political bon mots sparingly : ‘Your fingers fed me/ oranges from the Dutch-blue plate/ while his “just society”/ tingled in our midst.’ (p.70)

The title refers to Trudeau’s admiration for Erik Satie’s music, his favourite piece being Gymnopaedie #3, but who will recognize the reference?

Because living hasn’t yet tapered off into
Satie’s sad piano.
Yes, the rest of the world seems to know
a thing or two about love’s bitter edge,
the dirge that wells up, unannounced,
to drown the Orphean blue. But who will say? (p.78)

Indeed, the rest of the world may know, but will everyone understand what Souaid is talking about? Her images are powerful and incisive: ‘The silver pulse through a restless pond./ A robin winking from the foxglove/ after its elated flight through space.’ (p.36), particularly strong when she speaks of nature.

But the voices remain confused as to identity. The fetus Rose speaks of nature as visible: ‘The city awoke, refurbished. Yesterday’s euphony/ of rain easing into birdsong./ …. The rosebush beneath the window./ The last warbling stars,/ bending away.’ (p.87) How could a fetus, in utero, be aware of these things?

Some readers will make the poetic journey, but most will find Souaid’s poems as enigmatic as Trudeau was in life, and as elusive.

Joanna M. Weston - THOSE BLUE SHOES and THE WILLOW-TREE GIRL - for ages 7-12 






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