Allan Brown - Issue # 99

Love As It Is by Marilyn Bowering. Victoria, BC., Beach Holme, 1993. 97 pp. $12.95.
Hologram, A Book of Glosas by P.K. Page. London, ON., Brick Books, 1994.67 pp. $11.95.

I sometimes think that the classical patron of poetry should be not Apollo, with or without the Nine, but rather Proteus, the Shape-changer. T'his is the characteristic of poetry or of the poet that Keats called negative capability: the poet becomes nothing in order to become any thing (everything would probably be too much to claim). Marilyn Bowering develops a number of dramatic personae in Love As it Is including, of course, that of Marilyn Bowering. P.K. Page's Hologram records a series of subtler but no less satisfying transformations as she moves into and out of the voices of 14 poets who have influenced her. Both Bowering and Page in their own ways present a gathering up and refinement of long practised art.

Love As It Is is divided into four parts: a loose set of I I lyrics and monologues titled Antiquities, and three sequences, The Mercers, Eight Poems for Margaret, and A Cold Departure. Some of the Antiquities poems such as "Christmas in Prague" and "Native Land" have a specific historical setting; others use a narrative base of legend, such as "Tranquille," a re-telling of the King Gargoris story, or "Flowers" in which Bowering explores the Attis myth from a female point of view. The incest theme of "Tranquille" is handled delicately yet clearly. Gargoris' unnamed daughter-lover remembers "The liquidizing melt / of skin on skin" and then goes on to describe her pregnancy - "I felt the golden kernel kick to life inside" - with an image that hints at a positive ending for the tale without disguising its inherent brutality.

This blending of positive and negative-elements is typical of the book. The anonymous women in The Mercers give a naturalistic, often prosaic account of a Newfoundland family: "Tomoffow is Sunday. I go to the kitchen to peel the vegetables" and then "At lunch we wash the dishes" ("The House at Mercer's Cove"). One day follows another as the men go out to sea and "the girls from here work as maids in Montreal." But there are deeper feelings here as well underlying the repetitive drudgery that make it.both comprehensible and comforting:

I touched the swelling

on the child's wrist
and felt the knob of pain.

I held that flower
and gently breathed away its petals.
                   ("I touched the swelling")

Marilyn Bowering appears as a character in Eight Poems for Margaret, a memorial to her friend Margaret Wilson. The sequence presents the final days and death of the poet's friend with care and a kind of muted confusion. The first poem, "The packers are done," sets an appropriate tone for the set. It develops an elaborate floral conceit, much in the manner of a traditional elegy:

  The garden was all your care: 
  nasturtium, rose, chrysanthemum, 
  cat mint.

The easily unfolding, quasi-Elizabethan rhetoric is given a modem twist,

  the two black cats
  from next door
  roll in it -

and then returns to solemnity with

  black-eyed susan, and sweet pea, 
  gentians, alyssum;

and concludes with the bittersweet paradox:

  the open mouths of the livingston daisies,

There are no revelations here or claims to a final understanding of the mortal mystery, simply two friends meeting and parting and somehow becoming their own "chorus of spirits" ("I sit up in bed and say it aloud").

A Cold Departure is the most substantial piece in the book. It is an investigation and lyric recreation of the love affair (or "liason", as Bowering calls it) of George Sand and Fryderick Chopin. It consists of a series of excerpts from a letter that Sand wrote to her friend Wojcieh Grymala in June 1838, interspersed with poetic developments of the letter's various themes. The second section of the piece uses passages from six letters Chopin wrote to friends and family between 1838 and 1847.

The poems spoken by or through George Sand are often characterized by a simple naturalism. In "On a Train Travelling," for instance, she sees and brings effortlessly before us "Lake afterlake, white-cliffed, /fathomless, inviting," and goes on to record how "At night bonfires prick the shore." But such imagery can also display a sinister aspect. Her sleep (in "Sleep descends on me") b6comes "a metal cry / ... in my ears" as she enters a tortured mental@ world where "A tree clicks its dry leaves." This tendency reaches a horrifying climax with the Lorca-esque allegory of "I stood at the door of the clinic":

  I put a stone on the table.

  I put white stars on the table

  I put the baby on the table

  I put my knife on the table.

Chopin is given a quieter, somewhat bemused voice. He is equally sensitive and has "spoken to the dead," but the experience puzzles him: "I have broken my word. / But the dead are all I have." His art is instinctive ("I speak before I hear") like that of a child, and like a child he is more concerned with himself than any other: "My heart aches to be opened. / My spirit reaches, and falls back. "It is Sand who finally brings their experiences and memories together in a brief insightful piece that seems to contain both their voices:

  What did we think we could do for each other?
  Enter a mirror?
  What looks back through the glass
  is a spirit trying to enter itself.

Marilyn Bowering's work is a development and refreshing of images and concerns as much as it is an exploration of new themes and points of view. Although A Cold Departure is a self-contained unit, it has interesting links to some of her earlier work. The ambiguities of Sand's and Chopin's liason are, in a sense, a narrative expansion of the suggestive couplet "Pleasure was in exile,lbut we joined in pain" from the poem "Form and Variations" in her The Sunday Before Winter (General, 1984). Much of the dramatic power in A Cold Departure flows from her detailed first-person evocations of Marilyn Munroe in Anyone Can See I Love You (Porcupine's Quill, 1987). George Sand's meditation on miffor and spirit is prefigured by the actress as she experiences "a fated encounter with a miffor" ("Norma Jean"). The "Marilyn" of this book - who is, of course, Bowering exploring herself, one of her selves, as suggested by the common name, which itself is an artificially adopted stage or art name for MM - explains that she too is "trying to find myself, / my sorcery, / my mirror' "Method Acting"). Both Marilyns finally understand, and help us to understand, that "You have to look [atlove] from the in side" ("Interview, 1956").

From time to time Canadian poets will introduce a new form - rather, an old one - into our national literature. Some of these transplants take hold, some don't. Bliss Carman's experiments with vaguely Greek models were an egregious failure. John Thompson's use of the traditional Persian ghazal in Stilt Jack (Anansi, 1978) was a brilliant success and has been followed by writers across the country, from Eric Folsom in Ontario to Phyllis Webb in B.C. It looks now as if the glosa, akind of tribute poem first developed by Spanish court poets of the early Renaissance, is securing a firm place. Hologram, of course, forms an early watershed in its use. Other samples include Steven Heighton's "You were wary, at the firstbrush of the wing," an elegy for Tom Marshall which appears in The Ecstasy ofskeptics (Anansi, 1994), and Jay Ruzesky's "I want to say something" in Painting the Yellow House Blue (Anansi, 1994). And, appropriately to this double review, Marilyn Bowering's "Letter from Portugal" from Love As It Is.

P.K. Page gives a succinct formal definition of the glosa in her Foreword: "the opening quatrain [is] written by another poet; [and is] followedby fourten-line stanzas, theirconcluding lines takenconsecutively from the quatrain; their sixth and ninth lines rhyming with the borrowed tenth." There are 14 such in Hologram, deriving from (or, as she puts it, marrying with") an intriguing mix of writers from Sappho and Seferis to Eliot and Auden.

Page handles the rhyme scheme with ease and frequently adds new, shifting patterns of her own. The first stanza of "Exile," for example, glossing George Woodcock's "Imagining the South," shows her skill at interweaving full and slant rhymes. It is also a good example of the way in which this formal device supports the subject of the uncertainty of vision - things seen, not seen, half seen - in the poem as a whole.

Tomorrow a change of lens or soft-focus filter 
will alter the past. its edges will smudge and blur, 
its embroideries and its subtleties disappear.
it Will be generic, unparticular,
unlike today which is bright as a name brand, clear
and familiar as the palm of your hand.
And though you may squint and shade your eyes and peer
back through time, mists will obscure the scene.
Whatever you long for has been left behind.
There will only be yesterday, only thefading land.

Theobligatory "hand/land" pair defines the stanza with the slant rhyme of "behind" supporting them (along with the unexpected internal rhyme "brand" from line five). Another set of three rhymes, all full, straddles the third, fifth, and seventh lines with "disappear/clear/peer."Line two's and line four's "blur / particular" may be full or near full rhymes, depending upon individual variations of pronunciation, but "blur" forms a clearly directed slant rhyme to line five's "clear" (alread part of another set) and y also maintains a subtler connection with the end rhyme "filter" in line one and the internal rhyme "alter" in two. The "ee" sound of line eight's "scene" looks back to "peer" while the "n" is continued with "behind,@ and "land."

Some of the poems in Hologram relate to her own earlier writing. "The Gold Sun," which glosses Wallace Stevens' "Credences of Summer," is governed by a tension of ideas working both with and against her poem "Kaleidoscope." The imagery in "The Gold Sun" also employs a rhetoric of what might be termed the negative made positive, as in the line "a snow on which no swan / is visible," which echoes stylistically a tradition of French poetry going back as far as Baudelaire.

Some of the echoes also work as friendly parodies. Dylan Thomas' unmistakeable voice roars out of "Love's Pavillion" (from "And Death Shall Have No Dominion")

Though they rattle the stones 
in their broken brains,
in their thicket of words 
who will find a way?

"Inebriate, "glossing Leonard Cohen's "I Have Not Lingered In European Monasteries," neatly captures his loose, slightly prosy style:

Unending sunlight falls upon the steep slope of the hillside where the children play

and continues with an almost embaffassingly accurate image of his common manner and material:

 And I am beautiful.  I know my worth
 and when I smile I show my perfect teeth.

The sharp enjambment of "steep / slope" here exhibits another bit of verbal dexterity as Page both hides and prepares for the rhyming of "steep" (line six) with the quoted tenth line, "During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep."

There is, of course, an underlying seriousness in the book, as in all of Page's writing, along with the wit and waywardness. This formal "marrying" of voices has come late in her writing career and may well be a formal though not necessarily a final - testament. The last poem, glossing Mark Strand's "The End," addresses the issue of human mortality with a familiar image, "when [we are] held by the sea's roar, motionless, there at the end," and the suggestion of a wholeness that contains both the changing and the changeless: "We are the water within the wave and the wave's form."

About twenty years ago I attended a reading that P.K. Page gave at Queen's University in Kingston. She spoke then of herunderstanding of the word "religion" (re + legere) as meaning "to read again." Her re-readings in Hologram deftly and decorously "pay homage," as she puts it, to "those poets whose work I fell in love with in my formative years." The homage is still real and both her own forms and years are made graceful by it with this latest collection.