Reviewed by Eric Barstad
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
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 wife Erin and their two cats—Finnegan and Pickles—in Brooks, Alberta.