Al Rempel Reviews New Poetry for EVENT 50/3
Al Rempel Reviews:
Susan McCaslin, Heart Work, Ekstasis Editions, 2020
Barbara Nickel, Essential Tremor, Caitlin Press, 2021
Louise B. Halfe (Sky Dancer), awâsis—kinky and dishevelled, Brick Books, 2021
The religious tradition I was born into tended to sharply divide spirit and body. In its most crass expression, the body was bad, but the spirit was good. Poetry wouldn’t have it. Starting with William Blake and threading all the way through Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic and beyond, poetry has patched up this division, extending tendrils of spirit out from the body into the world. The three poets here explore their spirituality through the body in uniquely different ways: McCaslin begins with the heart, Nickel with the nervous system and Halfe with her awâsis, the inner adult child within.
In Heart Work, McCaslin looks through four windows of the heart: the writing of Saint Hildegard and related artwork; the letters of John Keats; the 2017 fires in Cariboo, British Columbia (accompanied by photographs taken by her husband); and the COVID-19 pandemic. Each window reveals a different facet of McCaslin’s spiritual reflections, which are ‘heart arts;/pure acts of the educated heart.’ The mystics see beyond the visible; the heart can know more than the brain. Through meditations of the heart, McCaslin sees trees become mandalas, and mandalas flower into trees, both with the power to break open barriers and reveal the connections between all things:
New science says trees
patient sustainers have hearts…
‘If planting a single tree could help
could cutting fewer planting more
open us again to planetary breathing?’
McCaslin’s mystic vision extends into the next three sections. In ‘Negative Capability Suite,’ each poem springboards off an excerpt from one of Keats’s letters. Echoing Blake’s doors of perception, McCaslin writes:
you could imagine no heaven
other than one of heightened perception
not less than what we touch, taste, smell, see, hear
Given that McCaslin created the Han Shan Poetry Project, a successful initiative to protect a rainforest near the Fraser River, she must have been devastated by the Cariboo fires of 2017, which destroyed large sections of forest and barely spared her family cabin. Despite this, McCaslin’s large, mystic vision finds beauty even in the fires’ aftermath, while still acknowledging the pain she feels:
tender crestfallen trees
play airs in A minor
burnt orange patches
scribbled on pine bark
imitate autumn leaves—
such wild colour in an ashen world
McCaslin is at her best when she allows her language to be playful, when her words skip and arc across the page. Even amid the pandemic, spring, in the form of Persephone,
would love be loved
as crone revitalized
kick up her heels in a field
trickle tickle up her spine
It’s not Mother’s Day
though she mothers sound
Like McCaslin, Nickel writes about the pandemic in a way that doesn’t feel forced or campy, but authentic and contemporary. Like McCaslin, she too draws spirituality from the body using artwork, mystical texts and Biblical references. Nickel’s work in Essential Tremor is so strong I forgot to take notes on my first read-through, carried along by poems that pop with sonic tumbling—internal rhymes, assonance and consonance—and with texture and depth that invite rereading. The ‘essential tremor’ from the title is a nervous system disorder that causes rhythmic and uncontrollable shaking in the body, usually the hands. The speaker in Nickel’s titular poem inhabits the role of caregiver:
Ends always with me spoon-feeding
and push-chairing, the secret life
...would gather the minuscule
beauties, for instance wind flickering the aspen,
every quaver I’m given from your hand.
Nickel explores the effects of the tremor at this very personal level, and then branches out in a variety of fascinating directions throughout the rest of the book.
In a series of poems entitled ‘Body in the Mirror,’ Nickel beautifully mimics the anatomical sketches of Leonardo da Vinci, taking translations of his notes and creating symmetrical images that work both as lyric and visual poems, revealing the wonder of the human body:
In ‘Corona,’ Nickel creates an engaging sequence of 13 linked sonnets, reminiscent of Dionne Brand’s powerful work in Land to Light On. From a poem entitled ‘3 (Spring)’ Nickel writes:
...we will receive their surplus
masks, we are arriving at the ends
of paragraphs and meals; that wending
of the river the evening he surprised us—
dark swath, a log until it gleamed—
a beaver dived into the running stream.
Each poem begins with the last line of the preceding one, and the entire sequence wraps around to the beginning of the first poem. References to current news are both playful and affecting: ‘Try not to seize/the toilet paper please’ and ‘while that buffoon condemns the WHO; on Zoom.’
Riffing off the Anchoresses’ Guide as well as Biblical references to parts of the body—eyes, hair, uterus—Nickel intersperses sonnets with poems in the next section that dance about the page and play with language, both in meaning and sound, in the manner of Dennis Cooley. There’s yet another startling overlap with McCaslin’s mysticism in the sonnet entitled ‘Anchoress (2)’: ‘Our Rule instructs: Therefore, dear sisters, love/your windows as little as you possibly can.’ The poem ends with the anchoress pulling the curtain back and despite seeing just a ‘dingy courtyard, rag of sky,’ sees enough to ‘magnify the Lord.’
While dramatically different in tone and spirituality, Halfe’s book, awâsis—kinky and dishevelled, just as powerfully connects spirit and body. Rollicking, hilarious and at times bawdy, Halfe’s poems tell stories of awâsis, the adult child within, or directly translated from Cree, ‘being lent a spiritual being.’ Since the pronouns she or he don’t exist in Cree, awâsis is sometimes presented as female, male, she-he or he-she. However, awâsis is always fully present in the body: she-he farts and poops and no matter the situation, even if humiliating, is constantly having a good time.
The stories in awâsis range from creation stories to critiques of corporate (white) culture, playfully disrupting and undermining the power structures and language (‘inglish’) that have attempted to dominate Halfe’s culture. The mythic stories, like Nickel’s work, invite multiple readings, layered as they are:
awâsis belonged to the Universe
but he didn’t know that.
For years and years he looked for Belly Button.
He walked the forest, tripped
on the tree’s umbilical cord.
Still he did not see.
The meanings of these poems are not obvious or simplistic, and like all good stories, the listener is pulled back to them over and over, discovering something new each time.
The poems that comment on our consumptive society are especially poignant. In ‘Birding Around,’ two crows fight over ‘a bit of bannock on the city sidewalk’ and then move on to fast-food litter:
In the evening dusk
quarrelling through the night,
stuck between their beaks.
In ‘Bored Meeting,’ both ‘inglish’ and corporate culture are wryly parodied with deliberate misspellings and exaggerated syllables:
awâsis was con-duck-thing a fist-full year-end
She asked her ass-sis-tent
to place her diaphragm
on the scream so people could see
The room was getting stuffy.
She opened the window
so they wouldn’t get sophisticated.
The last three lines here hint at a possible way forward to reconciliation, a path that avoids tokenism and allows the good of Indigenous cultures to break into the stagnant and oppressive structures of our society. Canada could use the medicine of hilarious disruptions.
Throughout the book, Halfe uses Cree when—and this is a guess on my part—English just won’t do, when the depth and nuance of her language is too powerful to give up to translation. Translations are provided in the right-hand margins, a superior choice to footnotes at the bottom of the page or back of the book because the reader can readily catch the gist of the word’s meaning with little interruption to the flow of the poem. Awâsis is a trickster, a shapeshifter, and there are many ways she-he can be read in Halfe’s poems: as a spirit interior to the narrator, as a figure in the mythic realm, and as a disrupter of contemporary political structures; no wonder Halfe has this to say about him-her:
awâsis, I just never know what mischief
you are up to. I never know whether to laugh
or to cringe.
You are a maverick.
While the embodied spirituality of each of these three poets manifests differently, each offers great poetry. The writing here is transparent: that is, it doesn’t get in the way; the reader is drawn into the world of the poet and carried along with her. Whether you read these books for their poetry or their spiritual insights, you’ll find a reason to read them a second time.