Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Nibbling in other fields, 1

Pierre Nepveu, Mirabel
Don Coles, How We All Swiftly
David O'Meara, The Vicinity

Here are three books that I keep coming back to, and have yet to post anything on. Partly this is because they are outside of my immediate purview, and one tries to maintain a focus in this over-stimulating world. In the face of that, it's still important to read outside one's zones of comfort, to read work that is not simply giving you what you want to see or read. Not that there's anything remotely uncomfortable about these books--they are all three fabulous in their ways. But if I didn't read out of the range of my immediate interests I wouldn't have found them. I'll start with Pierre Nepveu.

As the cover of this book suggests, it's pastoral. As Lisa Robertson says, "Imagine you had a land, and then lost it..." So it is with Pierre Nepveu's Mirabel, translated by Judith Cowan who won a Governor General's Award for her effort. Mirabel takes a slant look at the expropriation of land to develop the Mirabel airport north of Montreal. I say slant, because it doesn't so much chronicle the struggles, as offer wisps of its haunting. There is something familiar about this constrained and passionate book, how it sings to the little woodland, how it yearns for green. There is something very 19th century about its consciousness, even as it transcribes the leveling and building of a modern day hub of mobility, even as it attempts to seek meaning in this transformation, as the poet looks up at the contrails which he doesn't name, the language insisting on a past that is no longer.

Here from a series titled "Surveyor's Notebook,"
I'm crossing a field that doesn't belong to me, measuring out clumps of condemned trees and tracing heart-breaking outlines as yet unseen by those who live here. When, a surgeon without a scalpel, at five o'clock I walk away through the long leafy shadows, with the light itself stretched out tight enough to strum the nerve cords, down my back I sense the looks that kill...
Of course I'm wondering what surveyor thinks like this, and if he does, I would like to know more about this fruitful tension. What I get however, is beautiful language, a romantic way of seeing the earth, words that evoke the past even as they point to the land's future, words that leave out discord. And I wonder how could this book have been written post Paterson? Poetic time is not linear of course, nor is development, and despite this fact the book is gorgeously quiet, powerful, and compelling. Every poet has a right to carve out his or her terms and create their world. Nepveu's world, despite the decision to chronicle the earth's slicing transformation and connection to larger nexus of communication, remains whole, each poem representing another whole, no sign of any contemporary forces in the shape, no sign of struggle in the text itself, though we get a gesture of disquiet:
It was written that in a coming winter,
garlands of electrical wires
would fall across the fields,
that the dark and empty houses
would await the last judgment in silence
and that along the road tight as a tunnel
a snowplough would be shoving before it,
back and forth up and down,
rolls of white ghosts.
The lines themselves tumble effortlessly, beautifully, line breaks evoking, for this reader in any case, a more innocent poetic time.

In the final sections of the book we see the poet returning to the land of his family, looking for some resolution where there is none. "Imagine you had a land, and lost it." Pastoral is steeped in feeling. It's feeling. A harkening, an insistence on the past as a better time. And much of Mirabel is moving, and all of it is skillful, each line, just bang on in its simplicity. Though I would love to have seen some of that feeling (intense anger!), and some of those facts (contained in the poet's statement at the end), burst out of the constraints of the school of quietude which sees all painted mutely, mutely, as if by holding our breath and looking backward we can either make it so, or in our reverence, make ourselves somehow immune to modernity's woes.

This is not Nepveu's first, or only book. I believe it's the only poetry in translation, and there is also a novel. A professor of French studies at the University of Montreal, he has won many literary awards.

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