McGill-Queen's UP - April 21, 2009 - 10 Comments
The Ishtar Gate by Diana Brebner
Reviewed by Jenna Butler
“There is no turning back from fear, or joy,” Diana Brebner writes, and this line hints at the vast, and at times brutal, scope of the work contained in her final (posthumous) collection The Ishtar Gate.
Brebner is not an easy poet to read. Picked out in goddesses and angels, often taut and serious in tone, her poems nonetheless strike left of centre with surprising power. As Stephanie Bolster points out in the foreword to Brebner’s final collection, “There was no mediation between poem and audience, no apology. Take it or leave it, she seemed to say. If you find this too sentimental, too elemental, that’s fine; there are other poets to come.”
Much of the ambivalence surrounding Brebner’s poetry stems from the tension in her work, its driving power of abstraction. Perhaps, though, it is this reliance upon abstraction, the refusal by the poet to give the audience the relief of concrete references, that winds her poems up in such twists of brilliance. The very fact that the poems are sometimes stilted and a little clumsy in structure forces the reader’s awareness of what the poem is saying, rather than being caught up in how it is doing so. As for the constant critique that Brebner seems to think too much and feel too little in her work, she responds wryly:
I have not shed tears onto
your pages perhaps it is only
because I would not hurt you
with your indifference.
(“For the Poet Who Told Me to Think Less and Feel More” 116)
The element of the Ishtar Gate itself is noteworthy because of the connections one may read between the symbolism of the gate and Brebner’s work. The Ishtar Gate, unearthed by Koldewey in 1920, dates from the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. Originally one of the eight entrances to Babylon, the gate is now housed in a museum in Berlin. To Brebner, the gate represents the merging of the ancient goddess-based cultures of the East with the more rational, scientific thought of the West. Interestingly enough, of the three figures depicted on the gate (the lion, the aurochs and the sirrush), the figure of the sirrush has incited great curiosity. Much of Babylonian sculpture at the time focused on animals that were contemporary to the age; the sirrush, however, is a dragon, a figure of myth.
It seems appropriate, then, for Brebner to have selected such a title, with all its implied hints of mystery and displacement, as she faced much the same situation in regard to criticism of her work. As Bolster states in the introduction to The Ishtar Gate:
Her predilection for traditional verse forms, deemed retrograde by many Canadian poets during the 80s and 90s, heightened her isolation. Yet her perverse playfulness was such that one wonders if she chose this path in protest – the “traditional” as a daring opposition to the norm of free verse – and to ensure the marginality that granted her independence and privacy. (xii)
The beauty in this poetry – and there is a great deal of beauty resident in Brebner’s work – is in her heightened awareness of the inner world. The outer world, more immediate and concrete, is not always trustworthy, and so the inner world gains a terse and brilliant depth in the outer world’s absence:
But the world in air is
a perplexing place. Nostalgia displaces memory,
and only the dead, or the brave, risk the
dark place beneath their necks, the shadow
that opens, and reveals black, guttered
(“Salmon on Saran” 55)
Brebner is a woman unafraid to confront pain and what it means. She speaks of death, abuse, and loss with equanimity, acknowledging their power, and yet refusing to allow them autonomous voice:
Spider: small, hopping, dancing girl.
When did you learn how to walk on water?
She makes her way across: webs, small feats, whirl
on the cosmos. Contentment. Calm. What are
we moving towards? The spider crosses
water, takes her chances, bears her losses.
(“The Spider” 29)
Her poetry sings with what has been broken; she deals with the intrusive nature of memory with a measured hand, and in doing so creates moments that are startling in their poignancy:
Some things will not
forget how they came up from emptiness:
bluebells (called weed and torn up), lily-
of-the-valley (between concrete wall
and asphalt plane) green asymptotes
never quite giving up the ghost, never
blue morning glory on the Frost fence
and Siberian irises up against invisible
walls, and old lilac invading the thick
black lie which says: death, which
says, nothing is perfect, or even close.
(“The Perfect Garden” 51)
There is no respite from the ugly in this book, although violent events and memories are presented in such a calm manner that their very restraint is disturbing. There is no mediation for the reader, no attempt to airbrush. After all, as Brebner claims, “Protection / is not what we need, but the recognition / that we are all beautiful beyond injury” (“Restoration” 47).
Ultimately, in defiance of the criticism Brebner’s work seems inevitably to draw, this is a lush collection in spite of its conscious restraint. The Ishtar Gate reveals that beauty can indeed be found in the general, in that which refuses to be pinned down by a word:
Among the lilies you hack
from their moorings is one thing, a splendour
that is nameless, white, yellow flower, now
the water, stars exploding at the bow.
(“Open Among the Lilies” 25)