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[Retro Review] Into the Early Hours by Aislinn Hunter

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Title: Into the Early Hours
Author: Aislinn Hunter
Publisher: Polestar Books
Year: 2001
Pages: 105

Into the Early Hours (Polestar, 2001) is Aislinn Hunter’s first poetry collection (she has since published one other), and it is evocative, lyrical, and rooted in the earth of personal and familial history. Divided into three sections – “That Green Country,” “All the Old Thinking,” and “What We Saw, Having Come Through the Other Side” – the book begins and ends in Ireland, traversing many other terrains in between.

“That Green Country,” which takes up about half of the book, is concerned with the poet’s Irish heritage; it is about knowing one’s origins, and the struggle to know them. Sifting through the relics of the past, the poet explores her history, her relationship to her ancestors and parents – people she’s always (but maybe never really) known, for memory can’t always be trusted:

How easy it is to look up in memory, at hands and sky
instead of feet. (“Shoulders” 33)

All throughout this first section, there is the idea of a place being written into us, that we are the history books of the generations who went before:

The Irish landscape has marked our bodies:
History written on our flesh as if we were vellum.
It’s like the Bufo toad, sloughing off, swallowing his skin;
Layers thin as rice paper adhere to the lining of his mouth.
(“In Leaving Ireland, What Is Lost” 13)

But history here is not History – the grand, earth-shattering moments – but rather the quotidian moments that make up the various parts of our lives, as in “What We Have”:

There is no pure history, only a mess of it, a muddling,
and like soup – Agnes taking this and that from the garden,
adding broad beans and chicken stock, stirring –
everything together arrives. (14)

There’s often something pleasing about witnessing someone else’s past as they recall it, but once in a while the reader can get lost between the author’s knowledge of an event and its telling. So it is with poems like “Christening” (16) or “Fixed” (40-41), which don’t offer quite enough detail to bring the reader fully into the story, becoming somewhat cryptic and a bit poetically selfish. The same thing can happen when too many pronouns go unclaimed (poems referring to “she” or “he” or “you” rather than to named characters), keeping readers at a distance, not always fully engaging us. However, these are small criticisms of sacrifices a history collector must make.

The second section, “All the Old Thinking,” is elegiac and lyrical, often examining death through the eyes of figures historical and imagined. The inevitable violence of this section isn’t sensationalized; in fact, death is softened into something almost bearable. Speaking of a landslide that buried the town of Frank, Alberta in 1903, Hunter writes:

It was as if the ground gave
a great yawn at the end of an evening
before slumber.
And then a blanket, and under
the stony plain not a murmur or sigh.
(“Frank Slide, Alberta” 56)

These poems contain grief and ache, longing and conjecture. They are the sad songs we always return to on albums almost forgotten: musical, beautiful, indulgent. Hunter uses her personae to hide and reveal herself, donning and removing masks as she sees fit.

“What We Saw, Having Come Through the Other Side,” the book’s final section, highlights Hunter’s love of language and rhythm, as her words dance us through perhaps the collection’s most personal poems. Sometimes, though, this love of language and rhythm can overtake a poem, leaving us wanting more exploration and meaning, to be led farther on. I want to read poetry that feels lived in, comfortable and familiar as a favourite sweater. Some of these poems, while certainly not structurally formal, are sometimes too “new,” too preoccupied with the sounds of words, less worn – clothes too fancy for everyday use. But I’m still taken with many of them, will read and re-read them, and the poems that end the book are definitely of the more lived-in variety, coming full-circle, returning us to Ireland and the poet’s own life.

In my copy of Into the Early Hours, there are flower petals pressed between random pages, placed there by my partner. To flip through a book and find flowers is a wonderful surprise, a bit of time perfectly preserved. Many of these poems are just as surprising, as lovely. This is a very good first collection.

Eric Barstad is the editor of PoetryReviews.ca, and he currently lives with his partner Erin and their three cats — Finnegan, Pickles, and Claude — in Gleichen, Alberta, a small farming community an hour east of Calgary.

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Add comment January 31st, 2006

[Retro Review] Radio & Other Miracles by Terrance Cox

Radio and Other Miracles

Title: Radio & Other Miracles
Author: Terrance Cox
Publisher: Signature Editions
Year: 2001
Pages: 107

The poems of Terrance Cox’s Radio & Other Miracles (Signature Editions, 2001) are honest and rooted in the soil of the poet’s own life. These pieces, all connected in some way by the ever-present motifs of radio and music, recall times long (and not so long) gone, often moving between astonishment (at the transcendent power of a short-wave radio on a clear night or at a new-found ability to communicate across vast distances), nostalgia (for a schottische in the backwoods of Quebec or for Billie Holiday’s “delicious lick of lip”), and tribute (of an uncle who “could stickhandle like a devil” or of musicians such as Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk).

Radio & Other Miracles explores a history that is at once personal and shared. Relating to the reader tales of his youth and adulthood, Cox also re-imagines popular history (the days of humankind’s first tentative travels into space, Bob Marley’s death, and the first appearance of The Beatles on American TV), pondering – sometimes in celebration, sometimes in lament – the humanity that both unites and divides us:

In revels of a Saturday
& Sunday’s pop-tune praise,
great rifts heal & close
Babel was never built

We are, these nanoseconds,
sisters & brothers
blessedly one species. (“Saturday Night in the Central Region” 56)

What makes the book somewhat less enjoyable, however, is the way Cox drops definite and indefinite articles (the, a, an) from his sentences – almost like static interfering with the clarity and continuity of a radio’s signal (and just as annoying). It is a technique that can be quite intrusive, never allowing the reader to become fully absorbed into the moving and extremely detailed narratives the poet creates. Yet, once you get used to Cox’s style, the book, especially for a first collection, is certainly worth many readings.

Review previously published in the Danforth Review.

Eric Barstad is the editor of PoetryReviews.ca, and he currently lives with his partner Erin and their three cats — Finnegan, Pickles, and Claude — in Gleichen, Alberta, a small farming community an hour east of Calgary.

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Add comment January 25th, 2006

[Retro Review] The Birdhouse, Or by Jamie Dopp

The Birdhouse, Or

Title: The Birdhouse, Or
Author: Jamie Dopp
Publisher: Ekstasis Editions
Year: 2002
Pages: 106

Jamie Dopp’s The Birdhouse, Or (Ekstasis Editions, 2002) is accessible, fresh, and conversational. The book delves into the poet’s everyday life, illustrating for the reader the profundity of simple existence:

I used to be ironic about my grandmother,
my colleagues, the way they seemed
to be trying to make themselves indispensable
(my grandmother, half-blind and past eighty,
on a church visit to comfort
“the old people”) until I realized

busyness like that is not about
claiming special value, or even expertise, but
only about creating the illusion that
something in this world requires
your attention. (“The Garden” 60)

The first three sections of the book are very strong, creating narratives that are honest, moving, and often revelatory. The first, “The Birdhouse, Or,” is about family, fatherhood, and belly buttons. Ranging between comical and contemplative, the poems in this part of the book examine the grand and minute details of a father building a birdhouse with his two small sons:

You are surprised and not surprised by the way
these moments come,
the four of you on the porch like that,
the birdhouse not only looking like a birdhouse but actually one. (“The Birdhouse, Or” 35)

The second section, “Limes,” is a quintet of poems that all refer to limes and the memories they conjure up for the poet: of past romantic relationships, of a bitter and “bourgeois” youth, of high school rivalries.

Finally, “Ed’s Red Car” is an elegiac section that centres around the memory of the poet’s late neighbour Ed, the red car he gave the author as his final gift, and how “death doesn’t change anyone”:

And afterwards, after the fear and sadness, I was also
much the same, no great new insights,
just my usual pipe dreams and virtues and neuroses
tempered only by a deepened humility
before the wonder and fragility of life. (“Death Doesn’t Change Anyone” 63)

All three of these opening sections are a delight to read.

Where the book falls short, however, is in the final two sections: the often too self-reflexive “Teaching Dreams” and the punnily titled and perplexing “Arse Poetica.” Perhaps too many years as a university student and then as an English lecturer have jaded me towards poems about teaching and English courses; or maybe it was a former prof, who would scrawl “BORING!” in big green letters across the top of any story about writing or having to do with being a student. I’m not sure of the cause, but I do know that these poems are far less interesting than the ones that precede them.

“Arse Poetica,” on the other hand, while certainly not boring, is simply too much of a self-indulgent poetic exercise, and it mars an otherwise enjoyable book. The “arse” of the title ends up being the reader, as Dopp takes him/her on what the back of the book generously calls “a dazzling and dizzying tour de force.” And certainly it is dizzying, though not much else, which is too bad, considering the strength of the rest of the collection.

Review previously published in the Danforth Review.

Eric Barstad is the editor of PoetryReviews.ca, and he currently lives with his partner Erin and their three cats — Finnegan, Pickles, and Claude — in Gleichen, Alberta, a small farming community an hour east of Calgary.

Add comment January 25th, 2006

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