Review by Ian LeTourneau.
Lynn Davies’ first collection, The Bridge that Carries the Road, published in 1999, was nominated for the Governor General’s and Gerald Lampert Awards. Where Sound Pools, her second book, equally deserves prize nominations. On the surface, the poems seem straightforward: lyrical with some narrative excursions. But don’t be fooled. They contain more depth than Jules Vernes’ 20,000 leagues. Davies’ poems are distinguished by the dexterity and playfulness of her tones and metaphors.
In poem after poem, Davies’ powerful imagination produces arrestingly fresh metaphors which are not only apt, but are whimsical, adding some much appreciated, oft-neglected humour to Canadian literature. Take these few examples of Davies at her whimsical best: at a music recital, we glimpse “In the front row / some kids stiff / as cold licorice” (“Young Bassoonist” 40); in another poem, bananas are described as “Clown grins losing their grip / on the counter” (“The Banana Blues” 43); or in yet another, frogs respond to loons by croaking “elitist, elitist” (“Loon Chat” 82). In these poems and countless others, Davies takes a page out of Horace—she delights and instructs. My reaction is to chuckle in delight at the conjured image of clown grins, but then nod in appreciation at the aptness of “losing their grip / on the counter,” which teaches us something new about the world, a new way of seeing things. This combination is rare in contemporary poetry.
Davies also has an uncanny gift for memorable phrasing. In “Composing Winter,” a long poem that in part touches on the paintings of Giotto, she describes the figure of Lazarus in Giotto’s painting as “Surprised at the weight of blood mapping his body” (70). Those familiar with the painting (if not you can Google it and find it quickly) will know that Lazarus is wrapped like a mummy, and that only his face and eyes are visible. It is an image that by itself captures no emotion. But Davies has mapped his interior thoughts at this moment by transcribing the look in his eyes and imagined successfully how Lazarus feels in that moment. Everyone knows that it is difficult to describe the ineffable effects of a work of art, but by this one phrase, Davies has arrived at the heart of what Giotto conveyed in a different medium; it is one of the most brilliant turns of phrase that I have come across in some time.
And consider “After Halftime,” in which we hear about a young girl playing soccer getting struck by lightning. Again it is Davies’ phrasing which adds depth and resonance to the story; as it ends, “masses / of white clover gather like clouds / where the girl collided with light” (56).
The only poems with which I couldn’t engage were several puzzling four-line poems, haiku-like in their precision, spread throughout the collection. Here’s one as an example:
The old hemlock blew down last winter.
Who could decipher what’s written in the scrolls
rolled and stacked to dry in the sun and wind?
They spit and crackle in the stove.
Though they are compellingly written, I believe it is the tonal monotony that fails them. They fall limp on the page in comparison with the more fully realized poems in the collection. Davies has chosen not to play to her strength, which is to incorporate a playfulness of tone, to let her freewheeling imagination gain purchase on the page and take off. The short poems just tease us by withholding longer explorations. And the images aren’t invested with any significance. For instance, why describe the bark as scrolls and not elaborate on the metaphorical direction of that image? The poems feel like they were abandoned too early. But because I believe a poet ought to be judged by his or her best poems, I’ll concentrate on the poems that stand out for me.
The poems I seem to be drawn to most in this collection are the elegiac ones. Perhaps a half-dozen of these poems are very strong, but one in particular has been haunting my imagination since first reading. “For Appetite” is possibly the best in the book. It is a moving poem about a missing cat’s presumed death. It opens:
On the lawn lies the faded sunflower head
abandoned by the squirrel. A hummingbird
rests, then drinks from our apricot-petalled
hollyhock. Our belled white cat
has not come home for three days.
Three sentences with three very different rhythms. Notice that the third is comprised of monosyllables only. I hear a suppression of grief in these lines, a holding back when compared with the previous lines with their generosity of multisyllabic words such as “sunflower,” “abandoned,” “hummingbird.” In fact, the word “abandoned” alerts us to the underlying emotion, because the speaker could have used a simpler world like “left” instead. Also, the landscape of this first line denotes a lack of appetite on the squirrel’s part, indicative of the speaker’s sense of loss. When we feel a great sense of loss, the world is usually not as bright, so the faded sunflower is a perfect detail. I’m reminded of Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones”—another poem that still haunts me—in which every single word contributes to painting a landscape denuded of its vibrancy, mirroring the inner turmoil of the speaker.
I especially appreciate how Davies avoids the sentimentality of addressing the cat or the cat’s disappearance directly. Her decision to hone in on the cat’s bell is brilliant. It rings true because, having just lost a pet, I know that the most random things can set off memories. Perhaps she never put a bell on her cat (and that’s presuming the poem has a real cat at its heart). We don’t realize how important the bell is until the end, when it makes another appearance in the concluding lines: “Often I hear a bell but it’s always a cricket, / more high-pitched, long-winded than all the rest” (84). The re-occurrence of this image affirms that the cat still lives in the speaker’s memory and will persist there like that one cricket heard above the rest. In fact, the very poem is like a bell, to paraphrase Keats, resonating in my imagination for a few weeks so far, but counting.
Ian LeTourneau writes in Athabasca, Alberta. His poems have appeared in Arc, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, The Antigonish Review and his reviews in Books in Canada. Gaspereau Press will be publishing Defining Range, a chapbook of his poems, this fall. Visit ianletourneau.ca.