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Book Review

Momentary Dark

Margaret Avison
McClelland & Stewart, 2006.


A[/dropcap}T EIGHTY-SEVEN, Margaret Avison is not resting on her significant past successes, but is continuing to write profoundly of spiritual reality in poetry that embodies luminous hope for the future of that form. She is one of her nation’s most honored poets, having won two Governor General’s Awards (Canada’s highest literary honor)—for Winter Sun (1960) and No Time (1989)—and the lucrative Griffin Poetry Prize for her 2002 collection Concrete and Wild Carrot. She is also an officer of the Order of Canada.

Between 1960 and 1997 she published only five volumes of new poetry, plus her Selected Poems (1991) which included new work. When I interviewed her for Image in November of 2004 and asked about her current projects, she was keeping her cards close to her chest. She had just won the Griffin, and the Porcupine’s Quill was in the process of publishing her three-volume collected poems, Always Now. I asked her if she was planning to publish another new collection, since I knew there would be some new poems in Always Now. She coyly replied, “I haven’t come to a crashing stop.” She certainly hasn’t. The poems in her new collection, Momentary Dark, show a mature poet at the height of her powers.

Avison continues to write what I call “urban nature poetry.” From the overshadowing “jagged skyline” of Toronto, where she lives, right down to “a begrimed / pear on a downtown fruit stand,” her images carefully reflect reality. At this point in her life, she doesn’t often get out of the city, and is sometimes even limited to making her observations through a window—but this doesn’t limit the scope of her vision. Take “In the Earthen Kingdom”:

As the skies feel their way to
where I sit, the unrhythmic
taps for attention (rain on the smudgy
glass) are like the
whole sky wanting to
tell me something.

Reading these poems is like walking into a dark room and waiting as your eyes become accustomed to the light. Hers is a poetry that takes time. She carefully constructs precise phrases that sometimes need unraveling. In “Making” she speaks of “Our roof,” “Their roof,” “Its roof,” and “Their roof” in four consecutive lines. Read quickly and it’s unclear whose roof is whose, yet at a slower pace, you find yourself moving up to cloud, to clear sky, to black space—which is the “dark context for / lovely blue-green solitary / little earth.” All of this is within the first stanza.

This is poetry that reaches to the furthest expanses. “Making” begins with the fall of snowflakes, continues through the fall of Lucifer and God’s foreknowledge of our sin, explores God’s creativity (“Your / imagination had been riotously / playful, spindling out a / universe, with many / minor and massive whirlings and / vast arenas where they can wheel”), wonders at earth’s particular favor, and settles finally upon God’s delight, as the poet notices the accumulated snow in its “unsullied white.”

Sometimes when reading you must pause to determine what role (noun? adjective?) a word plays—“Let the unknowing / structure what / is known.” In this way Margaret Avison slows the reader enough to be open to observe and consider what has come to her attention. Similarly, her playfulness with etymology and double meanings elicits a doubletake: “‘Change, / please,’ chants the street-corner fellow. / Doesn’t he know the / verb is transitive?” In the poem “Comment/Comeant” she tells us “there is a ‘secret place’ / revealed but not / at will”—and so we begin to see that observing takes time, and that even our observation of familiar words works at different levels.

Avison is never intentionally obscure, and slips in an occasional footnote (to scripture or literature) so the uninitiated are invited in. There is often, however, more going on than a reader might, at first, suspect. In “A Hearing,” she refers to something Shakespeare said in Hamlet about mercy, calling him “Will, Your servant.” Since in Avison the capitalization of “Your” indicates God, the line reminds me of God calling King Cyrus “my shepherd” in Isaiah. By the end of the poem, she’s reflecting on the “eternal will to / mercy” (italics mine)—bringing the entire poem into a fascinating unity.

It’s difficult to compare her poetry closely with anyone’s, or even to pick up on her influences. In the essay “Poets Learn from Poetry,” however, which recently appeared in the journal Arc, she expresses how haphazard her learning has been. The essay outlines the vast, divergent, and sometimes surprising influences that have contributed to her vision: poets as diverse as Robert Browning, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Lord Byron, and Robert Frost—none of whose poetry seems much like Avison’s, or even much like each other’s. In discussing these voices, she emphasizes the sounds to her ear, and how they taught her to listen.

Perhaps the best way to describe Margaret Avison’s poetry is to call it reflective. You can’t really say that her poetry is primarily narrative, like a John Terpstra’s, or lyrical, like a Mark Jarman’s—yet elements of both poke their way through. Consider the lyrical beauty of “Why Not”:

For a brilliant moment the sun appears,
makes everything look unreal
turns icicles into chandeliers,
finds mirrors in glass and steel.

Contrast this with the narrative strength in her retelling of the gospel story of the woman at the well in “Hot Noon”; she leaves out the more obvious aspects of the plot, so she can take us inside the story—inside the thoughts, feelings, and experience of the Samaritan woman.

A pair of poems in Momentary Dark take on the subject of poetry itself. The first, “Is Intense Sincere?” considers the relationship between passion, prophecy, and poetry; she says passion and prophecy “come before” and they “become / poetry after, / after long bearing-with.” After reflecting on Shakespeare for insight here, she concludes:

Largely out of our reach
the divine passion is
prophetic, yet
unchangingly fulfilled.

In the second, “Poetry Is,” she writes that “poetry’s / eye is astray,” focusing elsewhere. It reminds me of a brief paragraph from Elizabeth Bowen, which Leland Ryken includes in his book The Christian Imagination. Bowen says, “The writer…seldom observes deliberately…. Inattentive learner in the schoolroom of life, he keeps some faculty free to veer and wander.” Avison begins by saying “Poetry is always in / unfamiliar territory.” After she veers and wanders through several related “scraps,” she concludes: “It can happen that poetry…is / the unfamiliar territory / that poetry is in.”

Avison has no difficulty writing profoundly Christian poetry for an audience that is predominantly secular. Recently in The Globe and Mail (which also printed a strangely drawn caricature of the poet) Fraser Sutherland said, “For Avison, it’s not a matter of religious belief as such, but a reality in which, through Christian grace, perceptions of the world are irradiated by the divine.” She has earned the right to express what she sees, because she sees it so clearly. In “Exposure,” she writes:

Every living thing
as a mass or a
morsel, or one who moves with
the speed of light—
each, in His miracle of
the Lord knows.

What particularly strikes me in Momentary Dark is the beauty in the flow of her words—partially analyzable in terms of assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme. Wrap your tongue around such luscious phrases as “The sunrise window shrills / with the east wind of / wind-wild March” and you’ll sense what I mean.

She doesn’t merely focus on the trees, and the wild carrot growing in the cracks of broken concrete; nor does she spend long on the pigeons, those most urban of birds, before she turns her lens on the humanity within the city—“children / dashing the hair out of their / eyes,” the homeless that pedestrians “step over or around,” as well as those out of sight. She writes in “Shelters”:

Away across the valley
houses are heaped, and apartments; these
are glorified briefly every
sunset at the right season.
_________Lives over there
are only partly
private, and at this distance some
show one upper window

At one point of light that reaches her, she imagines a daughter doing homework, while listening to the radio (although music through some newer technology is more likely), at another, a car arriving home from work.

Margaret Avison’s poetic career began with exceptional poetry, and yet her writing keeps getting better. The height of her accomplishment here is not easily seen through the reading of a couple poems. It comes through the depth, beauty, and complexity of the entire collection, which well reflects the depth, beauty, and complexity of our existence.

Hers is a poetry of deep contemplation and hope; we can see ourselves in “The little new-drenched leaves” she describes in her poem “Palette,” which “glow in the momentary dark, / dancing.”

—Reviewed by D.S. Martin

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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