When Earth Leaps Up by Anne Szumigalski
Reviewed by Lorette C. Luzajic
Browsing through When Earth Leaps Up feels like one of those afternoons spent rifling through mementoes in a dusty attic, sun streaming through cracked windows. But it’s not my attic, and I feel like I’m ferreting out someone else’s secrets, prying open private papers. They are so compelling that I’m unable to put these mesmerizing discoveries down, even as I hear footprints coming up the old stairs.
Alas, it’s just Anne Szumigalski’s ghost creeping into the shadows as I snoop through her things. She may be a little restless about When Earth Leaps Up — the posthumous volume is something of a scrapbook put together from loose papers and thoughts left behind in her personal effects. She did not order them, select them, polish them or finish them; and indeed, they have an uncensored, unfinished, private feel. Without the poet’s hands-on control, I suspect I’m eavesdropping on revelations and sentiments unintended for me, and this makes this volume extraordinary.
Mark Abley, a dear friend of the poet and Canadian literary staple, is responsible for compiling from her files and notebooks what fills When Earth Leaps Up. In the afterword, he confesses to his “trepidation” at some selections, wondering whether he’s giving up the equivalent of a journal to the public, or if he is allowing beloved scribbles to be immortalized. He acknowledges the trickiness of the whole process, not just the privacy concerns, but also whether or not the poet would have felt a piece was ready or intended for the public. After all, not every note a person makes is destined for completion: we scribble random ideas and poetic thoughts that later hit the paper shredder.
“I need to come clean, and state that the book you are holding is not the book that Anne would have sent out for publication, had she lived another year or two,” Abley admits. “Apart from correcting a few obvious typos, I did not alter any of her words or play with her line breaks.” Most of the pieces weren’t first drafts, he says, but then, they weren’t edited either, and Anne liked to revise her work until it felt perfect. The resulting collection feels like a bundle of letters with a ribbon slipping out of place. It couldn’t be any more beautiful. Perhaps to keep them from overworking or hiding, poets need a trusted friend, another poet to coax delicate secrets from the shadows. It’s not that Anne would ever shrink from self-revelation; rather, she basked in the nakedness of poetry. It’s just that here the nakedness feels more chanced, less planned. The work is as stunning, exquisite, gorgeous as always, maybe more so. The usual themes of death and change and human longing are all present, and they are still infused with a ribald, humourous undertone. The title poem opens:
when earth leaps up
and heaven descends
and the two meet like lovers
then the question is
could these flowers be stars
and is dust nothing
more than the handful
I sprinkled on your face
as you went down into the dirt. (47)
Graves, skulls and bones, and the anthropologies of the human condition have long been staples of Anne’s work. What greater themes could poets ponder than love or death? An early memory of my childhood centres around one of Anne’s stunning, eerie passions. I was perhaps far too young to be voraciously reading through each Canadian poet on those musty beanbag chairs at the little library, but precociously, I already identified myself as a poet and knew instinctively that to write poetry I must read it. And I came upon “Sitting Under Death’s Rich Shade,” where Anne ponders the skeletal remains of a man she called Frans. I couldn’t have been more than eight years old, and I knew nothing of either love or death. But when Anne writes in “On Glassy Wings” that “a bit/ of me is broken / because of your memory” (117), I knew with spooky certainty that one day it would be clear. Anne closes her poem with “damn you, I cry out / you would not take me / when I was fifteen and dangerous.”
How I wanted to be fifteen and dangerous: to love so freely and lose so tragically. What Anne’s poems have always shown is how time waits for no one, and now it’s poignant and painful, almost a personal loss, to shuffle through Anne’s private papers as her spectre roams, eager to divulge but censored by the gods from what the living cannot know. It seems a terrible irony that the same “fifteen and dangerous” for which I waited so impatiently has come and gone two decades plus ago, as have a sad, lengthy line-up of my own Frans-ian tragedies.
Still, as somber as death may be, there is buoyancy in these poems that transcends the morbid subject matter. Perhaps Anne glimpsed — prophetically — a comfort that she senses before she moves beyond. Her poem “Untitled” indicates so, as she pens the admission that “for the living / there is nothing worse than death.” She continues:
When I think of him I say
‘He is lost to me.’
I should say perhaps
‘He is found to himself.’ (48)
The poems here are so stirring because Anne is no longer metaphorically “Sitting Under Death’s Rich Shade,” but actually buried in it. The ghostly feeling is nothing more than the fulfillment of Anne’s poetry. For all her life, she carefully posed the questions that haunt the human heart, poetic longings for the dead, for those left here, for what we may encounter after. Now that she has slid into forever, she would have to revise this and every other volume with the answers she has found. But the human plight remains that we must wait out our own curiosities and see this mystery for ourselves. No one states this more beautifully than Anne herself in “To a Friend Dying”:
“this is only the beginning
of change” I shall say
as I bury your pupa
into its mound of dirt
“on the day of wings
something shall certainly emerge
perhaps not flesh
perhaps not what you expect.” (54)
Lorette C. Luzajic is a poet, writer, and artist. You’ve seen her work in everything from The Fiddlehead to Dog Fancy to Adbusters.