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Thursday, 17 April 2008

Guest Review: Pasold on Wormser

Lisa Pasold reviews
The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet's Memoir Of Living Off The Grid
by Baron Wormser

“Words weren’t meant to do what poetry wants to do with them,” writes Baron Wormser. “Words are counters we use in daily life to note whatever we wish to note. We exchange them and live more or less unconsciously with them.”

I don’t agree. Written words may have originated as counters—admittedly, the Rosetta Stone doesn’t boast any hidden poetry other than its amazing translation of taxation laws—but over time, words have acquired different weights, different ramifications, different subcultures, and all kinds of different meanings.

Take the expression “living off the grid”—an expression I first heard in the Yukon, to describe someone living in the bush, in a two-storey log cabin, off the electrical grid. A literal definition, but the words “living off the grid” want to mean so many other things—including living outside of the controlled grid of ordinary daily life, beyond urban expectations, living out in uncharted waters.

Living off the grid seems such an apt condition for poets—especially considering how often poetry is left off the grid of cultural discussion—that I approached this memoir with high hopes. As Poet Laureate of Maine for the first five years of this millennium, Baron Wormser is well aware of the implications of his subtitle, even though he no longer lives in the house in the woods that is the raison-d’être of this memoir.

But the book falters in its apparent dual purpose of illuminating Wormser’s life in the woods, and his choice to live in poetry. The Road Washes Out in Spring chronicles the years from 1975 to 1998 when poet Baron Wormser and his family lived off the grid in a house they had built themselves. Wormser says of himself and his wife: “We wanted to be the snow, to surrender our tiresome, declaiming egos and experience utter stillness. That yearning was fanciful but balanced by hardheaded labour. The wood didn’t cut itself; the paths didn’t shovel themselves. We were romantics with backaches.”

I like the fact that Wormser doesn’t shy away from these backaches. In fact, I might have enjoyed more practical, linear narrative about life in the house. “Often when we told people how we lived, they asked us forthrightly how we could live that way. What was with us?” writes Wormser. I’ve now read his memoir, but I can’t answer that semi-rhetorical question. There’s a substantial trend in non-fiction writing today that focuses on a person’s life within a particular house. Wormser’s book could have run along those simple lines—“he came to rural Maine, built a house in the woods, and lived there.”

Wormser refuses to be so straight-forward, giving us instead a rambling series of short essays. He begins with his move to the house, and he ends with his departure, but between these two bookends of time, his themes and ideas are free to wander. The result is very much like a walk in the woods—filled with moments of wonder and self-recognition, but occasionally bogged down in mud and dead leaves. Seasons become jumbled, family members appear or disappear with barely an explanatory note, and Wormser’s excellent thoughts about poetry and home are detoured by random theories about Reagonomics and child-rearing.

I’m left wishing I’d worn better boots for this particular walk. Or, that I’d read the book intermittently, opening it for a short essay out of context, then closing the covers again. His short chapters stand individually as brief essays, and sometimes it seems there is another book trying to break free from his memoir—a book about poetry rather than memory. Wormser’s musings on poetry and the present moment are consistently thought-provoking and often eerily beautiful. He writes: “I never tired of simply watching one thing—a length of a tree—turn into something else. It was exhilarating and cautionary. Everything could change. Everything would change.” These meditations on evolution and the “now” of the present are the strongest parts of the book—it’s these passages which linger in my mind, challenging me to consider poetry and daily life in new ways.

Wormser writes: “When I spoke to people about poems, one quality I pointed out was the tremendous ability poems had to ‘dwell’, to stay in the moment as long and as deeply as they could.” He elegantly compares this concept of the poem to the longevity of trees. But Wormser is speaking “to people about poems”, leaving me as a reader to wonder—which people? Which poems? Such absent details become increasingly distracting, even as Wormser includes a few fine character sketches of neighbours who become, if not friends, then interesting acquaintances.

Wormser notes that his own poetry never connects him to the community around him; perhaps that was never its purpose. For Wormser, poetry is an ongoing task that finds value in what contemporary society too often casts aside. His choice to live off the grid “…wasn’t dynamic; it didn’t make anything important happen. Its promises lacked glamour.” Yet this very lack of glamour gives him time to explore the value of being present in the present tense, gives him time to “dwell” in the woods, trusting in the value of the difficult, wayward word.

Lisa Pasold is a widely-published Canadian poet and journalist, who divides her time between Paris and Toronto.


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