McClelland & Stewart - April 18, 2006 - 0 Comments
Point No Point by Jane Munro
Reviewed by Jenna Butler
Jane Munro’s Point No Point is a quietly eclectic collection of poems situated strongly in both location and recollection. Just as her poems are rooted in the physical landscape and rugged geography of British Columbia’s west coast, so too are they deeply anchored in memory and the ways in which we carry memory: in the blood and in the bones.
These poems reveal Munro’s fine hand at contrast: at the same time that the physical landscape she writes about is harsh and isolating, it is also recreated and softened through memory. This is true of events and people, also — to the point where memory becomes a malleable thing and is open to alteration, whether intentionally or simply over time:
I drive slowly round the block and up the alley, swollen with Sunday
dinners I thought I’d digested. Yes, the past was good, and yes, much
I’ve learned by heart proves transitory. Memory recomposes it under
brighter lights, amidst less clutter. Yellow roses still spill over the fence.
From behind, it’s clear what’s been added, what’s changed.
(“Another Story Built In” 4)
Here, the speaker recognizes that memory alters as life experience changes, and that time effectively skims off the surface of things, revealing the structure and the bare bones. Munro does not always qualify her work in such a manner, however, and the abrupt contrast in several of her poems between private memory and historical consciousness leaves the reader quietly reeling:
in a fifties Pontiac
kissing the man I’d marry –
wet December night
of a rain-splattered windshield –
his glasses, his pupils huge
as a buffalo on a
prairie – the dark lens
of a species
we squandered – the past’s long gaze
(“Our History” 9)
There are several such instances in the book where the past and collective memory beyond individual experience catch the speaker by surprise. Single experiences become as nothing in the face of this great, grave history. By doing this, Munro subtly introduces the idea that history itself, seemingly above reproach, is also something that can be rewritten – re-remembered – from different viewpoints.
Following this thread of memory, several of Munro’s poems trace the process of remembering and, conversely, forgetting. One of the most exceptional poems in the collection, “Missing Person,” does both of these things, utilizing form as well as subject matter in its exploration. The poem opens with a longer stanza, detailing the brother who is the subject of the poem even before he physically goes missing:
The last time I saw my brother he winced, pushing open the lawyer’s
heavy glass door into a downtown street. We’d just signed father’s
will. Twenty’d get me to Kamloops, but forty’d be better. No blond curls or
impish grin. Hair like leaf skeletons blown across the blue eyes he got
from Mother. No sparkle.
(“Missing Person” 10)
In each of the successive three stanzas, the lines grow terser. Adjectives are carefully set in; the repetitive sounds of “[d]epressed. Heavy. Clever” (10) hit the reader bluntly and with great weight. The speaker’s brother is reduced, over the course of the poem, from a living being (albeit somewhat the worse for wear) to two-syllable adjectives. Finally, in the last stanza, he vanishes altogether. All that is left of him are the absences: he is “[l]ost from the bottom bunk” (10), lost from the speaker’s life, and finally vanishes into thin air in the final two words of the poem.
In contrast, a number of the poems are most firmly rooted in the physical landscape, the title piece, “Point No Point,” being one of these. This is Munro at her most alert and evocative: the land and the physical location are described in minute detail. The poem itself seems to speak to the idea that it is not so much one’s past or memory, or one’s future and expectations that are important. There is only one’s existence in this landscape — learning the patterns of a new lifestyle. There is already a memory located within this particular geography that is larger than one’s own. This is the wild west coast. Wind and tide touch everything equally, and that, perhaps, is where the beauty of this poem lies.
The lengthiest poem in the collection is, by far, “Moving to a Colder Climate.” It is an exploration of all the themes brought to light throughout the book, in the form of a narrative poem about the death of the speaker’s father. The poem is centered on the destruction of a handmade family home by fire, followed by the construction of the married daughter’s own handcrafted home. The completion of the new house is marked by the passing of the speaker’s (the daughter’s) father,
as if he’d chosen
the timing – signing
our move with his – articulating
Building and losing homes (in the poem, the original house is lost to fire) are events that center around the creating of memories and the locating of those memories in a particular small physical environment. Thus, perhaps it is no surprise that “[s]ix months after his death / he came back again” (74). As the speaker visits the burned-out remains of the family home, she envisions her father appearing at the door, complete with his own memories and ghosts.
This final poem is, without doubt, the strongest of the collection. In it coalesce all the memories and experiences scattered throughout the rest of the book; in it, the death of the speaker’s surveyor father becomes the catalyst for realization. Perhaps, like the physical landscape of Point No Point, death itself is subject to differing perceptions:
also a surveyor’s term, a point
when viewed from life, but no point,
seen from the other side?
In her unassuming way, Munro takes the reader through memory, through history both personal and shared, suggesting at each step of the journey that nothing is solid, that everything is subject to the shift and wash of time and perception. She brings us to this: that even death itself is a matter of perception. Perhaps it is not an end at all, but simply another kind of movement, of re-creation. Through her skilled melding of landscape and memory, Jane Munro shows us where the borders blur.