Reviewed by Jenna Butler
Pamela Porter’s Stones Call Out details the struggles, grief and grace associated with bearing witness. Far from being inscribed in the personal, Porter’s poems reach out into the larger world – Latin America, mining towns in the Midwest – blurring the lines between the act of witnessing as personal and as universal.
Although the subject matter in the majority of the poems is difficult in an emotional sense, Porter resists the urge to pass judgment on the events she describes. Rather, much of the imagery in the collection concerns a wordless bearing of witness:
the iron bed on which he lay
moaned and murdered the silence.
Although it might be tempting in such a collection simply to focus on human events, Stones Call Out courageously delves into the way in which one can also bear witness to aspects of place:
[…] Oscuro, town
forsaken, hangs by wind’s grace:
the church bell worked loose of its rope,
howl of smokestack, cemetery gate.
Place itself is given a persona in Porter’s work. It suffers its own duresses, its own evolutions and stagnations. This persona, like a human persona, also grows and develops. Far from being static, it, too, possesses the potential to change:
Ritual rhythms fill the kitchen: a car’s
far-off growl, the pat between his palms
of tortilla Raúl watches grow round, bright
like a moon, a soul, a little sun
there among the decaying walls.
These changes, small evolutions within both people and places, are revealed as being simultaneously generative and destructive acts.
What is clear in this set of poems is that the act of witnessing is not always a choice; that it is, all too often, thrust upon us, and that we are left to deal with its vagaries as best we can:
What the hell have you been
chosen for, had birth thrust upon you,
death lifted from reach?
In situations such as these, witnessing is an unwilling act, but a necessary one. The book is permeated with the sense that the act of witnessing gives clarity to events – there is a subtle hint of the idea that witnessing allows an event to occur which would not otherwise exist or be acknowledged.
At the same time, there are instances when one chooses to act as witness; when one becomes complicit in an act that later serves to separate one from everybody else. As one of Porter’s poems admits, “I walked into that darkness on my own” (16).
Whether chosen or imposed, the role of witness is a position that is paradoxically both unifying and isolating. In the one sense, the bearing of witness brings one into closer, more intimate contact with the world:
Some grief ancient to her own
will brood in her and swell
the shrouded town. All
the moonstruck, splintered houses
will hear it
In another sense, the very distance (emotional, physical, or both) required to act as witness is instantly very alienating. As one of the poems claims, “I would be, therefore, a measure out of place” (35).
The exceptional nature of this book is found in the fact that, while bearing witness to events in the world and within others, the poems also delve into the notion of bearing witness to one’s own changes. These changes serve to estrange oneself from all one has previously known to be true, and also to bring one closer to the outside world:
I sang in front of the bathroom mirror
and it was lost, that innocence
which I can never recover.
Stones Call Out is a powerful and deeply resonant collection. It moves with a haunting grace over a subject about which other books might be tempted to fall into criticism and judgment. Porter’s poetry honors experience and memory, much as the Mexican people commemorate the roadside sites of emotional events by each bringing one stone for a small cairn. I am reminded of Harriet Doerr’s Stones For Ibarra:
Stop, she wanted to call out. Stop for a minute. Look through these gates and see the lighted house. An accident has happened here. Remember the place. Bring stones.
Jenna Butler is an educator and poet who makes her home in Edmonton. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including CBC’s Alberta Anthology, and has been widely published in journals, anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.