Wilfrid Laurier UP - September 15, 2009 - 58 Comments
The Crisp Day Closing on My Hand: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane edited by Jeanette Lynes
Reviewed by Ian LeTourneau
This book made me feel nostalgic. M. Travis Lane lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a place I lived for ten years and a place I still imagine myself moving back to settle some day. The selection of poems in this volume frequently are about landmarks familiar to me, but the aspect I admire most about this selection is the sheer range of Lane’s imagination. As Lynes points out in her introduction, Lane is not a poet who adheres to certain themes and writes them to death; instead, Lane does have a few preoccupations, but her imagination is certainly not limited by them.
In “King’s Landing” her power of description is evident, as the imagery conjures the landscape perfectly:
My country of reeds, of willows,
of wet lanes banded with dust orange lilies,
of soggy meadows where the barns
wait like discarded cartons for the rain—
There is a deep sense of knowing something intimately. Yet the conclusion of the poem complicates the idea and leaves us to ponder our notions of home: “those starry windows shine at night / like something we could be certain of. // It seems like home” (28).
I was also struck again and again by Lane’s syntax and line breaks. For instance, in “Loyalist Graveyard,” part of the sequence “Local Suite” (43-52), Lane carefully breaks lines between grammatical units:
Elms, drawing their darkness like a hood, have closed it in till it seems hardly large enough, only by accident not forgot. The past gets smaller the less we remember it. This is almost too small.
This effective use of line breaks enhances the description of the graveyard being too small, its history being squeezed into such a small space in the middle of the city. The grammar is parsed by the line breaks so that the reader needs to continue on to the next line to continue the idea, but the enjambment is not too forceful so the effect of “almost” is not lost.
There are some spectacular lyric poems here. Take for instance “Codicil,” which I will quote in full to do it justice:
No monument. Let me be ash
thrown out to tide
among the rags and flotsam of the shore
and the severed beads of the bladderwrack.
Or drop from a dory a brown glass jar
weighted with sand for the barnacles
to reach their gritty fingers toward
and tumble in the oil-ooze of the flats.
The inscription: that foamy trace
when tide turns and the osprey from her perch
turns also, or,
where a salmon leaps, or where
the sleek unsaying hides a loon.
No epitaph. Even a stone
returns to the nest of processes.
As for the soul,
nothing will hold or mark it but the same
impermanent elation, heart to heart, a word,
like a live fish in water, sometimes shows.
What I like about this poem is the tension, the language, the mystery. Language is slippery, like the salmon, like the turning of the tide, but it is much more substantial than any monument. It not only sounds like a wise poem, it is a wise poem. Such wisdom is found in abundance in this collection.
This book is part of Wilfred Laurier Press’s Poetry Series, the idea of which, according to the foreword, “is to ask a critic (sometimes herself a poet) to select thirty-five poems from across a poet’s career; write an engaging, accessible introduction; and have the poet write the afterword” (vii). It is an intriguing idea, and Lynes does an admirable job of choosing and contextualizing the selection with a clear introduction. But for me, there are two quotations from the afterword that sum up for me the experience of reading M. Travis Lane. “Mystery, I think, is the chief subject of poetry” (77) and “a poem is not a message, but a sharing” (79). There is a seeking spirit moving through these poems, and readers will be grateful for what it shares.