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Guest Review: Pryor On Briscoe

Mel Pryor reviews

It’s unusual to find a first collection which follows one form, one theme and one story (in this case a floundering, but not quite foundering, marriage) and I can only imagine that the Canadian poet Susan Briscoe has a file somewhere of worked on and worked on poems still waiting to come to light and/or a bin full of ditched juvenilia.  Though rather narrow in range, the collection is cohesive, intimate and often extremely unsettling.  Divided into four sections, each representing the turn of a season, each divided into sixteen poems, the relationship’s flaws and tensions are revealed bit by bit through the poet’s engagement with the natural world.   We learn more about the poet’s state of mind and heart from a “Bouquet of stinging nettles” and “Kitchen tulips too red,/ daffodils too yellow” than any direct reference to her husband, who remains rather murkily in the background throughout, like the poet’s picture of him, “an outline” that “won’t fit the page.”

The first poem of the first section, 'Winter into Spring', opens notably with an absence:

An icy mist,
no mountains this morning.

The world is a smaller circle.

throwing the reader straight into an atmosphere of suffocation and disharmony. The poem’s ending:  “Your traps/ all along the edges”,   brings to mind Plath and Hughes at odds over rabbit catching, and there’s a definite feminist bent running through the collection.  This section is shot through with images of disquietude and discomfort: “How do I not/ find chickadees, scattered, hard/ as marbles, on the snow?” the poet asks chillingly and there’s an atmosphere of repression, of holding back, of being anything but the fox “on fire -/ so alive!/ Every tip of fur alive!” This a bleak place of “Broken bones of the garden exposed,/ stones like scattered teeth”, where the deer “must eat/ or freeze”, and where limbs are ripped from the trees at night. 

The collection moves apparently chronologically from this far from idyllic pastoral scene through a year’s seasons, although we get a strong sense of time passing, that there is far more than one season and one year’s experience going on here, as we “Watch the moon set,/ turn, wait for the sun/ on the other side.”  Each poem has been carefully chiselled into ten lines made up of five unrhyming couplets, described by Briscoe as something between a sonnet and ghazal (although neither of those forms leapt out at me when I read the collection). The poems have a quiet force, like the beautiful cover designed by David Drummond, that comes from their directness and deceptive simplicity  (“A decade after my divorce,/ the first Christmas card/ is always from  my lawyer”),  simple well honed lines about the natural world (the moon’s “sallow beam across wind-scraped snow”), and the poet’s gift for imagery. Kisses are “like dimes slipped/ into a click-shut purse”, and

Three crows hold still
so long

they wear bridal cloaks.

Here the poet manages to convey beautifully the passing of time and to link a powerful image back to the marriage vow, perhaps the “Crow’s Vow” of the title.

Sometimes this repeated form, the frequent short sentences, and the weary tone can seem a little relentless, and I found myself welcoming variation.  A poem like the one quoted (almost in full) below, coming at more or less the midway point of the book, provides a necessary shift in register (as well as narrative drive), with its extended syntax and hints of humour at a time of family crisis:

Between this calamitous reconstellation
and my latest unfinished essay,

Diversion, Inversion, and Perversion: Sexual
and Textual Subversive Strategies Against the Discomfort

of Dichotomy in Ross, Cohen, and Engel, no wonder
you have fled, head spinning,

to the city, rented an apartment far too small
for us all.

And it’s the changes of tone, the little snippets of the daily grind and nitty-gritty of family life, the “good dads throwing/  baseballs, tossing babies,/ chasing bikes and strollers,”  and the bloke-ish “electronics and appliances, things/ with instructions in six scripts” that prevent this collection from becoming monotonous.  The beautifully placed “you” in “half-grown children, the latest to-do list, you, the spaghetti pot unwashed”, suggests that these poems, though steeped in nature, are in fact essentially love poems, albeit of a sort that goes against the traditional ideal of romantic love, dealing with the long term relationship of compromise and messiness and misunderstanding that so many will recognize. This backdrop to the sensory imagery and fine descriptions of nature help the collection ultimately to succeed.  Strangely, given that the male figure is such an elusive presence in the book, I found myself really caring about this couple and their story.

There is no clear resolution at the end of the story. The final poem finds the poet back with her partner, though (linking neatly with the opening poem) it’s winter again and the world has shrunk again, “the driveway diminished/ to the length and width of one car,” and “The path to the house/  is of snow/ packed by our boots,/ single file.”  Though there’s a sense of having gone full circle, this is a collection which lingers. Susan Briscoe has taken a risk by veering away from the usual structure of the first collection and has come up with something innovative, strangely elusive, haunting and worth reading and re-reading.

Mel Pryor is an English poet.
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