Thursday, August 10, 2017

11th Canadian Challenge - 4th review - Cloud Physics

I only just learned that Karen Enns has published two poetry collections since That Other Beauty.  Ordinary Hours came out in 2014 and Cloud Physics has just been published (2017).  I actually own That Other Beauty but for some reason haven't reviewed it.  I'll try to reread it relatively soon and decide if I do want to review it, and at that point I'll borrow Ordinary Hours from the library and read it as well.

Only a few poems in Cloud Physics have much of anything to do with science, but the majority are about things ending in one way or another (and I suppose when compared to the timescale of the universe, all human endeavors are as transitory as clouds seem to us).  The first grouping are about the world, or indeed the universe, ending.  One or two seem kind of cocky, while some of the others are a bit more thoughtful.  Incidentally, I just missed the CBC special on Don McKellar's Last Night, but it looks like his interview can be viewed here, and I think the movie itself can be seen on CBC, though I am not sure for how much longer.  I'll come back to this first batch later.

Other poems are about the death of a man who worked at the local mall, who Enns saw frequently, and there is an entire 12 poem sequence where Enns is responding to the death of her father.  (It's not the same feel at all, but I was somewhat reminded of the poetic exercises that Bowering captured in My Darling Nellie Grey.)  A few poems are less fraught, such as "Empty Nest," which could be taken as the death of the nuclear family, but is generally viewed as a natural and largely desirable outcome after one has prepared one's offspring for the world.  That doesn't mean that there are flashes of desolation.  Enns (or her narrator) does feel bereft and perhaps a bit adrift without anyone in the house (either a partner is absent or doesn't count): "I need cut and paste collage, / bedlam in the basement, geraniums gone wild. / I need a bottle washed up on the beach / with a message from a clown."

The collection isn't actually quite as melancholy as it sounds but isn't particularly humorous or joyful either.  I'll just focus on a few of the poems that grabbed me.

"The Planets are Moving In" is from the first grouping about the end of the world.  In this case, it appears to be brought about by some change in gravity that is leading to a collision between the planets (though I would have to assume tidal forces would tear the Earth apart first).  As in the movie Last Night, knowledge of impending doom is widespread, and humans are dealing/coping with it in a variety of ways.  "The planets are moving in with their cold, elegant sheens. / ... / A fog hangs over the surface of the earth / as we wait ... / Some of us drive inland. Some of us / take to deep river valleys and prayer. / Some of us seek out the warmth of barns, / the smell of hay and tools, old wood."  While indeed many would turn to religion (and this desperate longing for life beyond this existence is of course the main motivator for religion), I can also imagine many trying to reconnect and commune with nature as a kind of solace.

A similar impulse but on an individual scale comes up in "A Son's Story," where the narrator is driving his dying father around. "I want to hear the meadowlark one more time, he said. / And so my father put his cane against the rotting fence / and sat down heavy on a stone. / A meadowlark landed on another one / and sang. ..."  With the wish granted, they "drove back to the city" with the father more or less ready to die.

In "People of the Suburbs, Sleep" the narrator is awake while the suburbanites sleep.  While not overly proud of her wakefulness, she still sees a gulf between herself and the others: "Wrapped in blankets and duvets, you're surrounded / by a mesh of dream and incredulity ... / ... / Roll over on your other sides. / ... / There's at least an hour before your coffee makers, / programmed for a better life, bleep green, / your dogs bark hopefully."  If the poem were a bit longer, Enns would have to be more clear about the narrator's view of life.  Is it foolish to be hopeful along with the suburban dwellers?  Does she have some burning secret that keeps her up at night?  The reader does not know.

Enns includes a 12-part suite called Twelve Months, which is dedicated to her father Peter Enns who died in 2015.  It seems Peter was a farmer from the Niagara Region, which could explain Enns' metaphoric use of the earth and soil as a shelter or comforting home.  It isn't entirely clear to me whether Enns is reflecting on her father's death in the 12 months following his death (somewhat akin to Bowering's poetic sequences) or if she is putting the poems into his voice for the year preceding his death.  I would lean towards the latter interpretation.  Leaving aside whether there was a specific diagnosis, this awareness of the advancing stages of death generally fits better into the overall scheme of the book, and the narrator does seem to be particularly aware of the natural world, as if each view of a bird or even snow melting off of boots might be the last opportunity for such a sight.  In a way, it is unbearable -- how could one truly live as if every moment would be one's last.  This knowledge has to be pushed aside to allow the average person (like the slumbering suburbanites) to get through the day.

Here are some of the moments that have been captured in these poems.  In "July": "But here the crickets are making such a din, / reminding me of what is blasting through the present, driving us ... / ... / What is lovely with burden."  In "August": "I am built of dust. You will see how this can be. / ... / My eyelids are flaked with goldenrod and ragweed chaff, / and the shimmer off the bales is something I can almost taste. / ... / But you remain. You haven't moved. You're standing in the light / of small things: ricochets of dandelion seeds."  In "November": "You wouldn't believe it if you saw it yourself. / A blast of starlings, hundreds of them, / going hell for leather towards the inarticulate light. / ... / Leaves on the vines have darkened and curled. / The ruts made by the tractor have hardened so we know / where we've been."  And finally death comes for the farmer in "April": "I can hear the birds this day that I am dying, / Voices in the distance carry wild cravings and wind away from me. / There is silence in the walls and along the floorboards. / So this is how it ends."  This last poem in particular reminds me of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" though Enns's narrator (presumably her father) is not as "pinched" and has a less crabbed vision than Eliot has here or in "Journey of the Magi").

This is definitely a collection that requires a second or third reading, and I've already found more of interest on the second time through.  I hope I've conveyed enough of the preoccupation with death and other endings to allow you to decide if you want to take it on.

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