Spar: Words in Place
by Peter Sanger
Gaspereau Press, 2002
Reviewed by Jennifer Dales
Peter Sanger’s essay collection, Spar: Words in Place is the work of an experienced, sensitive poet with a deep understanding of literature and the maritime region of Canada, particularly Nova Scotia. The book contains four essays: "Biorachan Road," "The Crooked Knife," "Keeping: the Cameron Yard," and "Groundmass." Three of them focus on Sanger’s explorations of rural Nova Scotia, and foray into the histories and spirits of these places. The other essay, "The Crooked Knife, is a reflection of the history and spirituality of an aboriginal carving tool.
Sanger’s essays demonstrate his extensive knowledge of canon and Canadian literature, as well as books of philosophy, geology, ship navigation and bark canoe building. He sees in the structure of the natural world a syntax, which may be the source of the structure of languages: "Does syntax follow the flex of earth in such matters, or does earth follow a measure of syntax which language emulates? Knowing what art it takes to contrive the former, I am ready to believe the latter…" ("Groundmass," 88)
In all his essays, Sanger explores the points of crossing-over between the natural and human worlds, and uses writing itself as an attempt to bridge the mysteries of the living earth and human artifice. Certainly, Sanger is fascinated with objects that seem to mirror this bridging, such as the crooked knife, the subject and title of one of Sanger’s essays. A crooked knife is a carving tool long used by aboriginal people to make everything from wooden bowls to canoes. It is comprised of a haft (handle), blade and a binding to join them together. Sanger uncovers the crooked knife’s hybrid quality—it is partly a naturally occurring object and partly an artifact: "…the haft shape of the best knives is largely determined by the natural pattern of the grain in the wood from which it is carved. This shape follows the way root or trunk met bough or tree limb. Their intersection gives the haft its crook…" ("The Crooked Knife," 28). Sanger tells us that since a crooked knife is usually made for a particular user, from wood chosen to fit that person’s hand, the knife becomes an extension of the carver—a part of his hand. There is a fluid connection from hand to knife, knife to carving wood.
Spar: Words in Place immerses its readers in breathtaking prose that moves effortlessly from vivid, concrete descriptions of nature, literature, and the objects and places of history to more abstract musings on the same subjects. Readers accompany Sanger as he walks the Biorachan Road in rural Nova Scotia where "…the road and roadside are filled, even in winter, with similitudes and transformations" ("Biorachan Road," 22). Or along the disappearing Plaster Road that leads to Cameron Yard where ships were built over 100 years ago: "…a place to walk not on eggs but on apples where old trees have tipped up their roots to lean an elbow on the earth" ("Keeping: the Cameron Yard," 48).
There are only a couple of minor flaws in this remarkable collection. One is that Sanger sometimes refers to the works of poets that he doesn’t quote in his essays. For example, in "The Crooked Knife," Sanger refers to Pound’s "Pisan Cantos" and "The Dynasts" as well as to Hardy’s shorter poems. (31) Without any examples of these works, there is no way for a reader unfamiliar with them to understand how they relate to Sanger’s ideas.
As well, Sanger’s use of the language of literary criticism sometimes detracts from the clarity and beauty of his writing. In the same section of "The Crooked Knife," Sanger discusses Pound’s reference to the two roads that he traveled as a poet—"the old man’s road …CONTENT, the INSIDES, subject matter" and the road that Pound simply called "music." Sanger says: "After the epistemological limits of the discursive has been reached, the old man’s road may follow a way in which speech, myth, and music are synonymous…" The use of the phrase "epistemological limits of the discursive" does not help to explain why Sanger thinks these two roads are the same. I believe Sanger could have explained this idea better, since the joining-together of content and form, human and natural worlds, so evident in his descriptions of the crooked knife and the land of the maritime region, are at the heart of his vision.
Jennifer Dales is a writer living in Ottawa.