canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Lost August: Poems
by Esta Spalding
House of Anansi Press, 1999

Review by Shane Neilson

Esta Spalding is a Vancouver poet/screenwriter whose new book, Lost August (Anansi, 1999) attempts to build on the early success of a thus-far prodigal career. Her first book of poetry, Carrying Place (1995, Anansi) was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award and went into multiple printings. In the same year she was awarded the prestigious Long Poem Prize by the Malahat Review for "aperture". She built on this success with a remarkable book consisting of a single long poem titled Anchoress (Anansi, 1997) which garnered her the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris award for Best Specialty Book of the Year.

It tells the unorthodox tale of a zoologist working in the basement of a Vancouver aquarium where he enters into a journal fragments of the previous life he possessed with his wife, dead a year before. It is a reminiscence, an introspective investigation allowing for narrative enlightenment. It is also a complex, wide-ranging (from WWII to the Gulf War to present-day) and rewarding work. With such a resume one expects Lost August to confidently deliver skilled language, an expectation bolstered by the promising inclusion of two award-winning poems within the volume, the aforementioned "aperture" and also the League of Canadian Poet's National Poetry Contest-winning "Bee Verse" of 1998.

Lost August's introduction - August - or was it August - reiterates the theme of uncertainty and confusion first presented in the title of this "lost" book. The book is divided into three sections, the first entitled "Everywhere the river &". It begins with a poem dedicated to Michael Ondaatje (Spalding's father-in-law) called "Apart, I Send You News of Lions". This poem in a concrete sense portrays a woman remembering her separated lover, recalling how he'd study frescoes. It continues the theme of loss not only within its own title ("Apart") but also with its beginning lines:

Each moment is twinned,
you said, each apart from each.
If you listen, there are two
rivers. We inhabit nothing
so much as loss.

The next stanza reiterates this theme: "There, a warrior rides/ into absence, province/ of the heart." While documenting emotional and physical divisions between a couple, it simultaneously presents one partner's concept of the impossibility of "oneness" or fusion of souls between two lovers, instead insisting that perception is divided into two but in two capacities... the first existing within one person's gaze in terms of what they see and what they do not see. The second is the artful dramatization of the differing perspectives of the poem's protagonist couple, a unit in name yet paradoxically not so, accomplished by Spalding by having the other lover denying this point, stating:

Will you see
how you are wrong: both
rivers, the same rive
in us, the very one.

The volume of meaning crammed into such a short poem bespeaks her intelligence and is typical of her work. In the second poem of the book, the feted "aperture", Spalding introduces bees for the first time:

...the morning light
was distilled by bees
who worked in darkness, stealing
sour milk kerosene, and axle grease...
The bees, small factories
made the wretched sweet.

Bees are a recurring image, particularly in the third section of the book. Such "image repetition" reveals the mechanics of Spalding's style: images recur and recur again according to her method of poetic layering or patterning. This technique infuses each image with a degree of meaning upon their respective initial occurrence; Spalding then invokes the reader's memory of that image when reintroducing the same image later in the collection, always slightly modifying it by differing context and thereby adding richness while avoiding redundance. This process heightens the enjoyment of the poetry by providing continuity and also by encouraging a diligent reader to reread the book upon its completion in order to acquire the full weight of Spalding's poetic intent. "Canoe" builds on the river image introduced in the first section's title and repeated in antecedent poems "Apart, I Send You News of Lions", "aperture" and "Archaeology" by casting it as a sexual force. "Canoe" is gently erotic. Spalding writes,

That moment before sleep steals
him, that moment he is in her
face pressed between collarbone
& neck, a moment she holds
his still breathing form- he turns into a river.

"Canoe" continues with further sexual river imagery evoked in fluid language.

She will dive under
water like sleep
holding her breath, feeling the river's pressing
embrace, lie on her back, stare at the star's fingerprints.

Someone wrote that Canadians were the only people who could successfully make love in a canoe. Spalding's version of this is,

She presses her fingers into
his skin & glides out as a canoe
will just part the surface that closes
over its stern.

Spalding employs syntactical innovation in many poems, among these "November 3:57", "Another Love Poem in Which the Neighbours Complain", and "Marriage in the Last Days". "ALPIWTNC" is somewhat self-explanatory, and it differs from "Canoe" in that it definitely is not gentle:

...o the steam whistling like a bullet when love's struck
& the neighbours should complain
we're putting holes in the walls.

Spalding's skill at capturing intense, passionate sex without descent into blunt pornography is artful. Read these at night.

The book is marred only by occasional missteps. "Passing Through" is overly whimsical. A mid-poem switch to a past where two sets of parents give birth to children resulting in the eventual writing of this poem by one of these progeny to the other is jarring due to the absolute lack of "build", or foundation occurring at the beginning of the poem. It is also heavily imagistic and colour-drunk.

In "May, Pregnant", the finest poem in the collection, Spalding's title indicates a season of birth and reinforces this with "Pregnant". In the poem's body she writes, "...dogwoods bloom, spilling/ cups of pink milk onto/ the swollen asphalt". "Bloom", "milk" and "asphalt" all serve to deepen the gravid imagery. The poem continues, "...Sprung from berths,/ the ships with full-/ bellied sails/ move in one direction...Mother, May I?" The pun of "berths", the "full-bellied"ness hinted at here and "Mother, May I" again enrich and build the poem's imagery of new life. Such imagery continues until Spalding uses contrast to shock us: "...Once/ it flowers the swarm/ comes, hungry./ It's death who breathes the first/ air into our lungs". This wondrously paradoxical anchor at the end of the poem, the spectre of death, is on a magnitude of eloquence that supersedes much modern poetry.

"Each Girl, the one", the second section of the book, documents the intoxication of youth, replete with romanticism tempered by nightmarish contrasts. In "Or the Eye", Spalding writes evocatively of the scenery surrounding her as she and a childhood friend walk in the rain, concluding the poem with

the heron hunting still the path
that worms between trees
last year when we were here
three men knee deep in mud
digging for the missing boy-.

"Winter Orchid" also mirrors this pattern.

The last section entitled "a yellow dress" consists of several long poems, the most notable of these being "Bee Verse". A well-crafted poem that has the interesting effect of layering itself by beginning with a few lines on a page, followed by the same fragment (though subtly altered) at the start of a larger one, "Bee Verse"'s very structure mirrors the poem's internal movements of bees moving back and forth across field, returning to their hive (the initial portion of the poem) and building on it but also altering its core.

Many more worthy poems exist in Lost August. The book not only succeeds in meeting expectations, it surpasses them with sexily descriptive poetics, with layered images reinforcing the poetic backbone of the book as a whole, and with concise, innovative syntax.

Shane Neilson is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.







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