Anita Lahey’s Out to Dry in Cape Breton is one of the best Canadian poetry debuts I’ve read in a while. Her poems are vividly imagined, technically and formally astute, and stylistically rich.
The collection is split into three sections. The first could be summarized as rifts on laundry. Before the reader groans while contemplating the utter banality of the subject, he or she should know that the poems simply use the everyday, repetitive tasks as a starting point, and go far deeper. Lahey plays with ideas of domesticity and repetition. Even the poems that ostensibly have nothing to do with laundry boast clever titles that fit thematically, like “The Usual Spin.” Part meditation on time, “The Usual Spin” culminates in these great, metaphorically inventive lines:
Time is the oldest
tire, balding from overuse, unconcerned
with potholes, forward, reverse—insistent
earth tugging it down, shoving it along.
Sharp imagery and precise descriptions like this abound in the collection. There is a convincing music in these lines, too: note the repetition in the sounds—“overuse” and “reverse,” “oldest” and “insistent.” The music and the metaphorical panache rescue an otherwise straightforward, nostalgic poem about memory and time. This is one passage that stuck with me when I closed the covers after the first reading.
“Post-War Procession,” the second section of the book, consists of war poems, death poems and other poems, as Lahey notes, that were “born through contemplation of particular works of visual art” (79). The title poem of the section is a skillful pantoum about a soldier’s march back from the front. It begins:
Envy the barrel’s ability to contain nothing.
You stink of blood, a blown-open field, severed
limbs. The march in was less pungent. Puddles, open
wounds along the ditch. Your rifle cools your neck.
You stink of blood, a blown-open field. Severed,
still following orders, boots, the men in front,
wounds along the ditch.
The repetition conjures the actual march, the two lines resembling the two feet, the pattern of walking. In this sense, the form was an appropriate one to choose. But this facile interpretation discredits Lahey’s skill, for she is on to something more meaningful here. She is exploring the readjustments—physically and psychologically—the soldier must make between war zone and society. The reconfigured repetitions derange the senses: at first the wounds along the ditch are puddles, and next they are more ambiguous. They could possibly be puddles, but could also be shell holes or dead soldiers. The ambiguity heightens the sensation of strain the soldier experiences. And this sense of difficult readjustment is reinforced later in the poem when the repeated lines begin to vary slightly, buckling under the physical and mental strain. In fact, I would argue that post-traumatic stress, a condition with a strong component of repetition, is being explored beneath the poem’s surface. The poem is a powerful and very apt use of this form; it was deservedly included in the anthology In Fine Form.
There are also a few poems in this section that are meditations about certain types of death. One of these, “Armillaria Root Disease (Death Five)” demonstrates Lahey’s skill down to the syllable. The poem begins by addressing the afflicted tree with the titled disease:
A tree grows choices: the axe, the bolt,
the beetle, the flame. None of these
for you white spruce… Creak;
groan. Make your dying heard.
And by the end we get a precise verbal recreation of the transformation, almost as if the tree itself responds:
You have swallowed the night. Aah, the slow
death, careening—and later, that long
mulch. Listen: inconsolable roots
release the hostage earth. Hear something
spin, glint, grind its way into the light.
In the last line, the three verbs speak for the tree. From “spin” to “glint” the assonance links them, the consonant sounds shift only slightly to signal the beginning of a transformation, but then from “glint” to “grind” our ears alert us to a more radical change, the painful reality. The dying is heard.
The third section of the book is comprised of a long poem, “Cape Breton Relative,” that revolves around the narrator revisiting home after moving away. The sections of the poem are titled with chapter and roman numerals and begin with a brief description reminiscent of eighteenth-century fiction, a subtle technique to indicate the long tradition of the Maritimes and possibly of storytelling. One thing is for sure: the voices ring authentically. Consider this sonnet, “Chapter VIII”:
“Twelve, I was, and after duck. The boat
a dropped ladle, dipping, rolling, old George
steering, old George drunk, one-legged George:
his gun, his whiskey, his dog and full throat
of smoke against the froth, the belch: the tiddle
versus the hull. The day was yellow, mean.
At George’s boots a can of gasoline,
puncture in its side: a greasy dribble.
“Imagine. Sure we landed, hunted. Fire
in my dreams? I don’t suppose. I plucked
my dinner, dear. I guess you might admire
me for that.” Old George, old times, old luck.
Your uncle laughs and veers toward the rock.
Your uncle drinks; the bottom splashes higher.
The rhythm of the storytelling here is perfect. The poem sounds exactly as if it was narrated by an actual uncle and copied down by Lahey. I doubt that, however, because the poem is carefully constructed: though the rhymes are unforced, the story unfolds to suit the rhymes. It is a very convincing poem.
When Lahey tackles form, she usually triumphs. She has a gift for intuiting its possibilities. Even so, there were a few exceptions where I found myself unable to engage with the more formal aspects, not because of any lack of skill, but paradoxically, because of too much skill, as a few lines from “Chapter I” demonstrate:
Wheels black and racing hear that red spruce scolding:
Jesus Murphy b’y! When were you last down home?
The island with her prickly thighs. Her porkpie mouth.
She is your Aunt Mavis. She wants to know where you’ve been.
Jesus Murphy b’y, when you were last down home!
The only change in the repeated line here is the inversion of “were” and “you” and the question mark for the exclamation. No change in meaning, really. So for me, I became hyper-aware of the form and any emotion the poem was tying hard to create was lost. Admittedly this is a fine line, and different readers will have different reactions, but for me, this particular section of the long poem traversed the line and I couldn’t engage. But I must stress, this is rarely the case.
At one point the narrator of the long poem avoids confessing in a letter home that “the camera has choked on yet another / picture of a clothesline” (“Chapter III” 62). In fact, clotheslines make several appearances throughout the book, including the cover. Lahey seems to invite our imaginations to be suspended out on the (clothes)lines of her poems. Go willingly.