Michael Bartholomew-Biggs reviews

Voices over Water by D. Nurkse and Selected Poems by Robert Bringhurst

I understand that laboratory experiments to measure brain activity show that an obvious proposition produces only a low level of response.  The same is true of propositions whose content is vague or absurd.  On the other hand, the brain does become excited by sentences which resemble plain – even familiar – statements while containing enough unexpected elements to push them towards the edge of comprehensibility.  Repeated exposure to such sentences can, I am told, cause the brain to enhance itself by constructing new pathways.

The poets D.Nurkse and Robert Bringhurst quite often present their readers with such sentences.  Their poetry is built around clearly stated but highly unexpected images and observations.  Where some poets work by gentle suggestion, these two tend to work by assertion.  Their poetic narrators – for they are not afraid of narrative poems – frequently tell us plainly but in startling terms what they see and what they feel.  We are of course free to disbelieve or disagree with their accounts of the world; but the poems themselves show little doubt or ambivalence. Nor do they feel obliged to provide a back-story or to justify their argument.  At its best, I find such prophet-like confidence and authority to be a welcome challenge and contrast to poetry which chooses to be allusive and sometimes elusive.

Voices over Water by D.Nurkse was published in Great Britain by CB Editions in 2011, having first appeared in the United States in 1996.  It is a narrative sequence in the voices of a husband and wife who escape unrest in Estonia in the mid 20th century and emigrate to Canada.  From the beginning of the first section “Leaving Estonia”, the poems set out to be vividly physical, bringing together disparate elements that co-exist in real life but which might be filtered by too much intellectual analysis.  Thus the bread was hot on the table / and the sea cold behind the shutter; and a musician harmonizing with all his strength also listens for an accidental, for a fox / in his bean patch, for a neighbour carousing / a mile across snow.  Hints of hard bodily labour with shovels, mattocks, knives and sweat convey the bleakness of Estonian rural life; but so does a description of  an aging farmer’s descent into mental anguish: he wished in secret / there was another man strong as he on our island, / so he might kill instead of simply dying.

On top of the rigours of subsistence farming there is political unrest.  First there are unsettling rumours if they spoke / so clearly of war, we knew / in secret they must mean peace.  But then conflict comes and sides must be taken:

I explained that I was on the side
of  God’s poverty but not my own
and against the divinity of the poor
except in my case: but these were not men
given to subtleties

As stability and security disappear, a government  / that had existed only a few days / and was bound to perish in a few hours issues forms for my intended harvest ten years from now / and who I was, and why I was not a traitor / and the cost of each of my knives.  Life becomes entangled with guerrilla warfare: Once the professionals had killed each other … / the volunteers began to arrive … / We could have killed them, sometimes did, / but there were always more.  These lines serve as an awful commentary on terrorism in our own time.

The two remaining sections “High Canada” and “Easter Snow” are, respectively, in the voices of the husband and the wife and deal with the couple’s arrival on the peaceful prairies of Saskatchewan.  Their troubles do not come to an end, however; there are the challenges of language, culture and new neighbours; and there is still hard work and possibility of sickness.

The man’s immigration experience is told in terms of tools and business: my new coping-saw blades / exactly like my father’s but twice as sharp.  When dealing with the assessor, he confesses I itch to take a knife and cross the gap / between my debts and his deficit.  And yet, when fatal illness comes, he shows unexpected insight: I don’t want to be so loved / that my death will destroy my house.  This observation prepares the way for a switch in the book’s last section to the woman’s more reflective view of settling in a new country.  She uses the re-learning her neglected musical skills as a metaphor for adjusting to her new home.  When she makes a mistake while singing, the pianist is staring at me baffled; but she cannot stare back disdainfully because he’s the only sober maestro / between these plains and the Great Slave Lake.  It is only after she is widowed that her language becomes as hard-edged as her late husband’s:  she protests Instead of a woman I’d become … a bitch / chasing its tail in praise / of Lazarus.  The book ends with her loneliness and solitude

In a city this big
how will my own death find me?
And if you find me how will you know me
from the other women with parcels
and visas with faded stamps…?

(It is a tribute to the authenticity of the woman’s voice in these poems that they sometimes remind me of Nancy Mattson’s Maria Breaks her Silence (published in Canada by Coteau, 1988) which is about a Finnish immigrant woman in Saskatchewan and fashions poetry from similar materials of lye soap, darning needles, bellowing cows and the moods of a sullen and disloyal husband.)

Perhaps because of its more dramatic content, “Leaving Estonia” seems the strongest section of this excellent book, being full of startling images and crisp language combining the oblique clarity of R S Thomas with Kafka-like paradox.  But the other sections are still so good that nearly every page could have yielded a quote worthy of inclusion in this review.  Voices over Water is one of the most consistently satisfying collections I have read this year.

While Voices over Water is a re-appearance of work from early in D. Nurkse’s poetic career, Robert Bringhurst’s Selected Poems (Cape 2010) is a compilation that looks back over ten collections.  Bringhurst is a Canadian poet who says he “never aspired to write more than one book of poems” and regards collections as being “accumulating instalments”.  The present accumulation is certainly an impressive one.

 Bringhurst is a poet who seems to enjoy information. The book’s first section, “The Beauty of the Weapons” begins with the stanza A long-armed man can / carry the nine-millimetre / automatic gun slung / backward over the right shoulder.  This sets the tone and many of the subsequent poems are also built upon solid facts about, for instance, botany, biology or geology. But although he frequently speaks of hard objects – weapons, edges, bones and teeth, Bringhurst also explores more cerebral themes in sequences based on ideas from Greek philosophers and writings of Eastern poets and teachers.  He blends physical and mystical especially effectively in the “Deuteronomy” poems.  The wandering trickster Jacob says I have spoken to the god / with nothing in my hand except my other hand.  Moses hears and follows a voice which tells him

I am whatever it is that is me
 and nothing can but something needs to be
 done about it

and also I am gone from the metal when the metal / hits the mould.  You will not get me into any image.

The Greek philosophers are made to sound more enigmatic. Pythagoras observes Plurality curves, / the darkness is plural, / and only the left hand moves. Demokritos warns that bearing children is even more dangerous than buying a mirror – and then joins an existential discussion already begun in “Deuteronomy”:

What is is not more than what isn’t;
the is, no advance on the isn’t. Is
is isn’t with rhythm.

This fascination with “is / is not” continues to occur throughout the book. “Demons and Men” from the penultimate section states:

…  each of us is both
 a being and a character,
a person and the armour that it wears.
You are you and not you.
A is A and not A.
I is not reducible to I.

Poems in the first part of the book are mostly set in the past and deal with historical and mythological themes.  The poet rarely seems to make an appearance – with the possible exception of “These Poems, She Said”, which begins

These poems, these poems,
these poems, she said, are poems
with no love in them

and ends

These poems, she said …
                            You are, he said,
               That is not love, she said rightly.

Here, instead of loftily laying challenging propositions before his readers, this poet finds himself confronted by someone else’s dogmatic analysis and dismissal.

The second half of the book, however, does feature several more contemporary references – Humphrey Bogart, Cézanne and (startlingly!) Josef Mengele – and also includes shorter poems responding to lines by European poets such as Celan, Rilke and Neruda.  (Interestingly  “is / is not” theme recurs here, by courtesy of Paul Valéry’s line Douceur d’être et de n’être pas.)  These response poems are gentler than much of what has gone before – yet they are still rich in challenging unexpected observations.  Of a girl reading, Bringhurst asks Who reads her while she reads? and When she lifts / the ladles of her eyes how much / flows back into the book..?  (Is there an echo here of Larkin’s “As Bad as a Mile” where a tossed apple core misses the wastebasket and leads him to muse on failure spreading back up the arm to the unbitten apple?)

Although the contents page shows that the poems have been chosen from individual, themed volumes, there is nothing in the text to warn a reader of impending jumps from, say, ancient Greece to mediaeval Italy to mountains of British Columbia.  And, in a collection as eclectic as this, more notes might have been useful.  While the poems about Eastern poet-teachers can stand on their own as authentic speech by wise and pondering voices, more guidance might have helped me distinguish one voice from another.  Exceptionally, one excellent long poem “The Stonecutter’s Horses” is preceded by a quite detailed epigraph about both the speaking character in the poem (Petrarch) and the non-speaking ones.

Non-Canadian readers probably need to be told that the powerful sequence “Tzuhalem’s Mountain” is named for a 19th century First Nations chief who defied encroaching white settlers.  Being aware of Tzuhalem’s own words The animals which walk on our lands belong to those who have the skill to kill them gives fresh meaning to, for instance, the “Parable of Two Birds”  one bird suddenly clutching fins and flesh / the other with the head and skeleton.  “Parable of the Truth” returns in a more anguished and primal way to the polite confusion of “These Poems, She Said”

Love, I love, I
do not love, no
it is true, I do not
love, but I love you,

When reading a collection as substantial as Selected Poems a reviewer may become aware of the recurrence of certain themes and devices which might have been less obtrusive in the shorter component collections.  Bringhurst himself writes Words become less true with repetition / even by a god  (“Hick and Nillie”); and there are times (in the Eastern philosopher poems for instance) when I began to feel that paradox and puzzle were being pushed too far and too knowingly.  I tell you conclusively / there can be no conclusions does not match up to the depth of Thinking of death can never be / wasted thinking (“The Stonecutter’s Horses”).  And likewise I used to write poems / and, like yours, they were made / out of words, which is why / they said nothing is pleasantly contrary; but compared to much else in the book it feels rather facile.  And yet, such quibbles aside, the overall quality and originality of this book poses this reviewer another equally difficult problem – namely that of doing full justice to its many and varied instances of poetic craft and imagination.

Both Bringhurst and Nurkse write poetry which is sharp and crisp enough to be read quickly – but which in fact deserves to be read slowly with pauses for reflection.