Sunday, March 29, 2015

8th Canadian challenge - 16th Review - Active Pass

Somewhat later than I intended, I am finally ready to review Jane Munro's Active Pass, which was published 4 years after her collection Point No Point, which I reviewed here.

The cover references a Mary Pratt painting: Fish Head in Steel Sink, which is basically exactly what it says on the tin.  The second section of the collection riffs on a number of Mary Pratt paintings, and it is a somewhat propitious coincidence that I saw a fair number of these paintings in person at a Pratt retrospective at the McMichael Collection last year.

Mary Pratt, Fish Head in Steel Sink, 1983

But the collection begins with an extended suite of poems called Active Pass, which refers to a stretch of water between the B.C. Lower Mainland and Swartz Bay.  I assume I crossed this pass 3 times on my very occasional ferry trips out to Victoria.

I have to say this is a very complicated suite, which does repay repeat readings.  At first glance, most of the poems just seem to be descriptions of nature that are found on the way to the two ferry terminals (and this is a bit of a callback to the opening section of Point No Point) and particularly the natural world from 20 or more years ago which was relatively less disturbed by humans.  But then the poems get entwined with reminiscences of Munro's father (who also dominated the last poem of Point No Point).

From Poem 5 in the sequence: "'Well, dear -- / goodbye for now.' My father's last words to me. // The man interred not only in my DNA / but in my turn of phrase, my taste."

Reproduction in a somewhat abstract sense or perhaps the issue of reproduction of culture across generations is another recurring theme.  From Poem 4: "What I want now / is not what a woman wants from a man. // I want what an egg wants from its DNA. / I want this with all the greed of a grub."

And then the focus shifts to essentially a geological time scale, taking in the dinosaurs -- and fish who took their evolutionary form millions of years before humans, and yet we, the upstarts, are reshaping their environment.  While Munro doesn't directly touch on this, there are interesting examples of how humans have triggered evolutionary changes in a number of species, with part of the tragedy of our outsized environmental footprint that we are forcing changes on species much faster than most of them can adapt.

Then the poems shift back to the intensely personal to memories of both her parents passing away and how Munro wishes she could have held her father's hand while he was dying. 

The poems speak to a life that is so layered that almost anything -- even seeing a white-haired woman on the ferry -- can trigger up thoughts about and longings for the past.  Apparently for Munro it is the periodic sailing on the ferry that really puts her in mind of her youth (on the mainland, I believe) and her adult life on the island, where she is involved in a number of quotidian tasks like gardening, but it is difficult at times for her to stay grounded in the present.  "Going home" should be going to her adult home, but the mind wanders and she is just as frequently going back to her childhood home (in memory).

The sequence closes with Poem 21: "Going home -- up the gravel drive beyond street lights, / municipal water, or garbage collection. // Mother read Baha'i texts while smoking on the toilet. / Toyota station wagon's my confessional. // After little islands, the big one, I can smell the Pacific. / Feel my cheek on your chest."

As I said, it is a fairly open-ended poem but one that tries to tie together a number of strands of things that one might be thinking about on a fairly long ferry crossing.

The next section are poems all inspired by Mary Pratt.

Probably the most powerful (and certainly the most graphic of the paintings themselves) is The Service Station, which was on view at the McMichael.

Mary Pratt, The Service Station, 1978

Munro's take: "You've seen it before .../ ... But this is a new world corpse: / moose, headless, ribs and forelegs strung up on a crossbar, / hung from a hook ... / ... [in] this service station, hoisting her body as provision -- / carving her up for roasts and stews."

I probably should be glad that this is a fairly straight-forward take on the poem, and it isn't all about how eating meat, particularly from a female animal, is the equivalent of glorified sexual violence.  I do think it is fair to say that the painting is a bit more ambiguous than the poem...  And if I recall correctly, Pratt was very relieved when she left the rural area they were working in and moved to the slightly more cosmopolitan St. Catherines not far from St. John's, Newfoundland.

Munro tries to capture the quality of light or luminescence that is a fairly notable feature of many of Pratt's paintings.  But it is hard to write poems about paintings, and I usually just write poems inspired by paintings, using them just as a launching pad.

Here is Munro on Pratt's Green Grapes and Wedding Presents with Half a Cantaloupe: "The ivory patter's bruised / by echoes of the silver bowl in sunset light. / The painting's galactic--a spiral in composition. / Round and round their course the two / pursue each other..."

If I recall correctly there was a third section that didn't do that much for me, so I move on to the final section of the collection which is comprised of poems about everyday life and which are also somewhat philosophical.

"Give thanks" is basically Jane jogging around town, near the homes of her children, who have moved away but seem to be doing fairly well, with the run jogging her memory back to the children growing up (not that this is covered extensively in this poem).  "Finally, I could to our home -- / today, you're sitting at the kitchen table, / looking up, expecting me -- / not that I've a lot to say: / a road report, weather news -- / I see a new tarp on the greenhouse roof."  This poem is quite poignant, particularly given the main thrust of Blue Sonoma, her next collection, where this domestic tranquility is shattered.  But all the more reason to give thanks in the moment.

The next poem, "For see how the jasmine releases and lets fall its withered flowers," more directly takes on the issue of the poet moving into old age.  I'm not sure if this line is taken from Shakespeare or Donne, but it certainly resonates like poetry from a much earlier age.  Here Munro considers the literal and metaphoric baggage that people carry around: "The clutter and clatter / of what I drag / along behind me -- a dilapidated cart / rocking on its wooden wheels / over roots / and rubble on a track / ... / ... no wonder / it takes such energy / to get going."  Her solution is to become more like the trees that cast off each season's dying blossoms.   "Can I not / emerge from the past's brown days, leave them / dropped here, to decay / ... / ... and walk / quietly and freely on my way?"  Sadly, I am not sure such renewal is available to non-perennials...

The final poem I am considering (and probably the final one in the book, though I'd have to check) has a title that is more than a little demanding "Live in love. Do your work. Make an end of your sorrows."  The poem opens with an image of the power and majesty of nature: "and now the rains / have come / sword fern frond bent down / collecting water along its seam..."  And it ends "puddle on gravel / pocked with falling drops, filled / with something out of nowhere / sinking slowly in // for now the rains / have come"

Of course, most of us do not have the luxury of living anywhere near unspoiled nature, but part of this is a choice.  I've always considered city life to be more appealing (along with Frank O'Hara!) but it does leave me fewer opportunities to experience unmediated nature and experience its renewing power.   And it is also possible that I would not have this near ecstatic experience.  The opening and closing of the poem (and the shout out to wild horses) reminds me of the the film Solaris (Tarkovsky's original) where I was quite bored by the opening and closing sequences.  Some of us simply are not attuned to nature to the same degree, and certainly do not find as much philosophical comfort (or derive religious imperatives!) while communing with nature. So while we can respect and find some interest in reading about Munro's experiences, they are essentially alien to us.  That's really where I come from when I read the second half of Active Pass (and most of Blue Sonoma for that matter, though that is a story for another day).

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