Tuesday, June 30, 2015

8th Canadian Challenge - 19th review - Blue Sonoma

As mentioned in this post, Jane Munro's Blue Sonoma has won the Griffin Poetry prize.  In some ways it now becomes more daunting in reviewing something that has such a stamp of critical appreciation on it.  However, that hasn't really stopped me before.  While it's only my opinion, I find Blue Sonoma to be two or even three smaller collections, and it is only the section ("Old Man Vacanas") devoted to her husband and his decline due to Alzheimer's that led to Blue Sonoma taking the prize.  Nothing wrong with that, and the other sections have amusing poems as well, but it is worth noting there are only 11 of these vacanas, so it is only a relatively small portion of the book, and the rest of the collection is in a very different key.

I'll start with the other sections, many of which are clearly inspired by yoga and other "Eastern practices."  I'm not sure whether I would call these representative samples or simply the ones that worked best for me...

In the poem "A small doll nested in hollow dolls," Munro writes "water knows to be water / a spruce grows into a spruce / in a crevice / buckling down, living on less".

The following poem "My mind is my grandchild" features the poet and her grandson on the beach, practicing stillness: "We sit on the beach, / my arms and legs about him. ... We watch light on the waves -- / its quick crowd, / passengers changing trains. / We listen."  The poet recognizes that she still struggles with feelings of anxiety, but still she is hopeful that she can gain inner peace.  While she doesn't presume that her grandson will follow in her path, she still hopes "he will absorb this beach. / I hope it will stay with him."

Towards the end of the collection, the poems seek to embrace the cosmos.  This is particularly true of the poem "In the slow spin of stars, a dancer turns": "In the slow spin of stars, a tree grows. / Its branches curl up and are wrapped / by two vines.  It's a pillar of greenery. // In the slow spin of stars, crystals form. / All the elemental glyphs. / Alphabets."

Whether it is a fair comparison or not, this strikes me as being in tune with Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.  People who are open to that movie will probably be open to this section of Blue Sonoma, while others may find both the poems and the movie somewhat pretentious and too imbued with mysticism.  I will say that, for me, a little mysticism goes a long way...  Nonetheless, I do appreciate the fact that the humor in some of the poems partly compensates for this borrowing from (and/or leaning on) Indian cultural practices.*

One example of Munro's humor is in the poem "A poet is walking the platform," which appears to be recounting a dream of sorts.  The poet, in the underground station, is "holding / a sign that says 'Germans lessons.' / She's wearing a blue dress. / Later, she's carrying a sign that says / 'Kissing lessons.' // Upstairs, the streets are flooded / and gas leaks bubble through the city's tailings. / Pavement is breaking up / the way sea ice melts..."  (Well, like many dreams it combines the humorous with the terrible.)

I will turn now to "Old Man Vacanas," which really is the heart of the book.  On the Griffin Poetry website, they have some discussion of the origin of a vacana as a kind of prayer-poem from South India.  No question that Munro was hoping that her husband's condition would not worsen, as well as memorializing him in some sense while he was still alive (trying to capture his real essence and not merely the platitudes that one hears after a person dies).  While in this case, the portraits are being drawn by another, I see parallels to the sad decline of William Utermohler, which he captured himself.

William Utermohlen, Blue Skies, 1995

Most of the poems in this series are spare, almost stark.  There are rare flashes of humor, mostly of the black sort, presumably employed as a kind of defense-mechanism.

From the second vacana: "[The old man] asks what day it is. / Hail falls. / ... / His calendar melts, / its pages slipping into soil. / ... / None of this matters to him / any more than greying hair."

From the fourth vacana: "The old man / losing his mind / registers / the weather systems / of intelligence. // Climate change, for all / its extinctions, / won't alter the planet's orbit."  (This might be read as a kind of displacement, moving from intense personal pain to an Olympian perspective on how entire species will be wiped away before too long, so what's one more individual death?)

In the sixth vacana, Munro offers a plea for help, asking others to visit, so that she has some company (particularly company that can remember the thread of a conversation).  She is in desperate straights, feeling as if she is boxed in by "Four windowless walls" and near despair: "Roar up the drive. Spit gravel. Blow your horn. // I am gnawing through myself."  This strikes me as the most painful of the entire bunch.

By the next poem, Munro seems to have reached a kind of acceptance and is simply riding out the string.

By the eighth vacana, Munro almost seems to be experiencing a split-mind phenomenon, appreciating the small things in the present that she finds endearing about her husband, but obviously acutely aware of how much has been lost.  At least this is how I interpret this poem.  The subsequent poems all seem to ride this line.  "My old man / oh, my old man, oh my / old man."  While it doesn't actually rhyme (though there do seem to be some internal rhymes), the last stanza of the eighth vacana reminds me of a nursery rhyme:
He sleeps on his back,
straight as a broom.
He sleeps on his side,
curled like a cat.
He sleeps with the heater going
and a T-shirt on.
My old man likes
to catch some zzzzzzzs.

In the tenth vacana, Munro suggests that her husband's regression is actually taking him closer to his prehistoric ancestors, or at least a pre-verbal era: "The old man / feeding the fire / keeps up primitive."  Or at least this is our view of our genetic ancestors -- that human evolution was somehow tied to the mastery of tools and perhaps even moreso the harnessing of fire.  This article goes into some detail about how there is relatively solid evidence that humans have been using fire to cook food for 800,000 years, and there is more speculative evidence that this goes back as early as 1.5 million years.  Intriguingly, in effect this earlier date for the intentional use of fire would push it much further back than the era when Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans diverged, so there might well have been a different reason for that particular split.

This linkage to pre-history is made more direct in the final vacana: "DNA from fossil bones / tells us we're siblings to Neanderthals -- // and the small arrangements / we make? Language, travel, art? Props // in a little, local, theatre of light."  If taken too literally (rather than simply being the reaction of a person in deep anguish), this is in fact anti-humanist.  Munro is saying that the greatest human achievements from the Renaissance onwards are all just window dressing and probably nothing more than diversions to keep us from thinking too deeply about the fact that someday we will die. I certainly can't go that far, particularly when thinking of the many advances that science has made over the past 400 or so years, though I understand where she is coming from, having gone through the loss of my mother.  (Fortunately for the entire family, it was not such a drawn out process.)  However, I do think it is an odd and particularly bleak note on which to end the series.

After some further reflection, it seems that Munro is probably drawing on Macbeth's tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech, where an individual's life is dismissed as "signifying nothing."  It is difficult to completely refute that viewpoint, particularly when it is expressed by someone in deep mourning, and yet society as we know it would not function if people were not able to put aside their grief, to say nothing of ignoring the abyss that lays before each and every one of us.  I am surprised that she ended on this one, which strikes me as a poem empty of hope and empty even of celebration of the spirit of her husband.  I would have probably swapped vacana 10 and 11 -- or added another poem that had slightly more closure than this particularly raw poem.  I suppose I do tend to follow convention when it comes to these kind of deep losses.  Now it is worth noting that the collection as a whole does end there.  Quite a few of the yoga-inspired poems (discussed above) follow.

I don't really have anything else profound to say about the collection.  I thought the Old Man Vacanas section was strong though extremely raw in places.  I wasn't as moved by most of the other poems, but I enjoyed a few of them a fair bit.  I'll keep my eyes out to see if she publishes another collection and what she writes about this time, particularly as she has relocated to the mainland after 20+ years on Vancouver Island.

* Cultural appropriation is always a touchy subject.  I'm definitely less doctrinaire about this than I used to be.  In my twenties I was always against Western artists borrowing from other cultures (including Paul Simon's Graceland), as it always seemed a one-way street.  I now think the dynamics are far more complicated than that, and that putting too many barriers in the way of inspiration is a terrible idea.  Nonetheless, there can certainly be situations that rub me the wrong way, such as the other day at the Toronto Jazz Fest at the concert by Ikebe Shakedown, which is a Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band composed entirely of white hipster types.  While I am sure they are quite respectful and sincere in their love of this music, they played a note-for-note cover of Ebo Taylor's Heaven, and I didn't hear them credit him, though I may have just missed that.

No comments:

Post a Comment