A few years ago I was browsing in a bookstore in Ste. Anne de Bellevue,
Quebec, operated by an enterprising young lady, since defunct, the bookstore,
not the lady. Among recently published books of the ho-hum variety, I picked up
a slim volume of verse called Volta
by Susan Gillis. I first perused, then bought it. What caught my fancy like a
hook through gills (there is no intended punning here), this unsleek fish
delighted to be reeled in, are the last lines of her poem “Mallow”:
in the ditch, look, we said,
their pale cups open like satellite
radio tower stems, catching
Ah, I said. Yes, I did say ah. Here is a poet who knows her mallows, no mere dropper of flowery names.
There’s purpose to such specific knowledge. Later, in her first collection, Swimming Among the Ruins, I read a poem about
“The Leaf Blowers” who, while managing their “portable zephyrs,” wear
“industrial earmuffs / fixed to their heads like cosmic halved /eggplants.” As a
gardener I enjoy considerable success cultivating aubergines, as they are called in my neighbourhood, so I appreciate
They are necessary for a good moussaka and indicate Gillis’s fascination
with food and Greece where, at least in classical times, love and hunger of
various kinds walked hand in hand over a stony beach towards a dinner party
hosted by Medea. In a sharp and brilliant brief poem, “The Walk,” the poet
confesses: “I have never been other than walking this road.” In these poems
there’s much ado about walking and climbing, using one’s legs in muck and
water, and leaving behind one’s footprint in the sand. We can take the walk to
mean an entire poetic apprehension of the poet’s experience in the world. Yes,
I quite like that.
love and pain still abound in Greece and everywhere, so it takes an adroit and
sensitive poet to say anew what has often been said of old. And that is the
issue for this reader, this appreciator of Gillis’ remarkable verse: how she
makes it all new again, her unerring ability to go to the heart – oh, that
sharp sharp arrow – in language as precise and flinted as, well, that arrow.
The poems pierce the heart or, to change metaphor and disturb the ghost of
Emily Dickinson, blow off the top of my head. I must be reading poetry because
my brain shivers from a rush of fresh air: it awakens, it trembles, it feels a
blast, is revivified and rises out of poetic zombieland.
bird came down the walk
did not know I saw
bit an angle worm in half
ate the fellow raw.
I throw Dickinson in because Gillis shares Dickinson’s wit and respect
for the vigour of monosyllables and the unexpected force of a word, like ‘raw,’
as the gentleman once said, all art, in this instance poetry, aspires to the
condition of music (Pater) -- think of “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”
a melodic line imbued with all those liquids and sibilants so beloved by Keats --
in Gillis conversation aspires to poetry. She has not invented this phenomenon,
for we think of Busy old foole, unruly
Sun (Donne), but she recognizes the vibrant energy of the tradition. Language
light and pure, washed by the unaffected rhythms of a voice layered with
emotion and expectation, a conversational gambit, an off-the-cuff remark, the
dynamic of apostrophes: the poems often address someone not there, not always
identified, prosaic words rendered poetic, uncommon lyrical sense without common
voice I heard – I’m sure it was you,
shaping my name from rocks across the river,
calling to me through thin air --
Light drove down in sheets.
leaned, all particle –
Then rain came, old crow, beating its black wing.
(“At the Lookout,” Swimming Among
do like a bit of wit served with my lyrics and it’s a rare contemporary writer
who combines the two. I like a hard edge supporting flights of exquisite fancy.
Someone who can write prose poetry, but doesn’t wallow in poetical prose which
is not the same thing. It’s a distinctive talent who melds opposites to create
that breathtaking moment. That superb metaphor, rain as an old crow: oh, my breath,
my heart, I can’t breathe, give me pause, prithee, give me pause. And in my
aging I have fallen in love with the incompleteness of things like unfinished
symphonies or statues or fragments of thoughts, or a poet who understands the
power of a pause, a drifting, a sudden silence, a gently stifled metaphor; who
reveals by withholding, pregnant attenuations: all embody intimations, all
express as much as the perfectly constructed image. All show that a line ending
a poem, despite the period, may well begin another unspoken line, the continuation
of feeling and thought -- no end to that thread leading out of the labyrinth.
hardest is not to know why
but how anything happens. To say, for example,
home in the snow an owl set out from a tree.
“Postcards From London,” Swimming
Among the Ruins.
of the poems, short or long, are subtle tapestries, lines built out of uncommon
speech so carefully interwoven with allusions and adroit repetitions that to
quote a part is to mishandle the whole like cutting out a piece of the fabric
to demonstrate a thread. Words taken out, however, can be easily returned without
damage to the stitchery, to the witchery, and will lead all eyes to admire the
entire work, admire to be understood
in its fullest Latin roots here. Remembering the import of walking, consider “The moment of my arrival all my
belongings were lost,” from Volta.
wanderer, if at morning the sea …
shook open your mat and sang the prayers,
you vanished from my life.
sit for hours declining tea in the police station, then finally
The wheels beginning to roll.
Several points of departure, entrances and exits, moments of arrival in these
two collections: here, there, home and abroad, England or Greece or Italy or
Newfoundland: the point is we depart from what we know and enter, not
necessarily dangerous emotional territory, but potentially so, whether shopping
in a marketplace, clambering over ancient temples, or climbing a tree.
to this, will you? Have you ever? A poem about pears: wait, no, about light and
transference; also, about romance in all its meanings and the perfection of the
lyric: oh, beloved pear. The poet learns about knights and armour (be alert to
the pun therein, sweet nights of amour) by riding a horse through a pear
orchard. Then in a brilliantly-conceived prose poem section she lists any
number of the manifestations of pears. It bears reading out loud just to hear
the music and interplay of vowels and consonants, the condition of music. It is so lovely with a fine musical metaphor humming throughout:
yellow pears, red pears, long pears
and warm, pears pendulous, the whole pear, pear
shared, pears with bees at them, pears with stanzas, and cellos dripping from
pears, pears between the lines, the notes of pears in staves running from the page,
the sweet late singing of pears turning to bellow then scream then the low pear
of silence --
How does a poet satisfy a lyrical hunger, or celebrate a transformative
richness of experience? Shake the branches, climb a tree, pick a basket,
engorge herself on pears? Read the poem: find out. I leave you searching after
the poet’s purpose: It wasn’t for me to
birth the pears. Dear me, a poet with a sense of humour not dependent upon doggerel
or laborious jokes. I think it matters she didn’t ride through an apple
not all a tree full of pears, is it? Sometimes we get stuck, sometimes we need dredging
up and out of the mire, perhaps emerging the wiser, perhaps not. Hunting for an
edible fungus (better to say chanterelles, as the poet does in “Summer Holiday”),
she was sucked into mud, lost her balance, and shouted for her friend Marilyn:
the shout continued on past both Marilyn
the creek, visible now through the trees,
a pile of white bones, big ones,
large animal picked,
light clarifying the murk the way
sharpens the sound of mud,
way ospreys dive after rain.
out was a rehearsal for death –
The issue is not merely another death and resurrection story, but the
suddenness of new knowledge, the appearance of bones which fascinate the
friends sufficiently for them to divide and go home where they cooked the
chanterelles “with garlic and mint.” Quite amazing when one thinks about it,
how Gillis is able to veer from the muck and mire into speculations of light
and sound and ontology.
like a poet with a healthy respect for food and spice, and Gillis does not shy
away from comestibles. Food appears often in her verse, in all its celebratory
and communal significance. Emotion can be poured with the coffee or slide along
the edge of a paring knife. Her sequence of poems “Postcards From London” are
redolent with the aromas of the halal butcher, apricots and cherries, spices
frying; but here let’s focus on the bones and what they portend. Gillis wisely refrains from ponderous speculation
which critics often do not. I beg your indulgence.
nothing mysterious after all;
fills a space between roots,
cow wanders out from the farm over the hill.
Notice how perception wanders from intimations of inevitability towards
a seemingly irrelevant image, from lowly details of mud and cow, thereby intensifying
the mystery, thereby enriching implications of the poem in language as simple
and complex as a nursery rhyme. The longest word in this passage is mysterious, and each line echoes the
other in the use of the alliterative all,
fills and hill. This is quite adroit, this is care taken with words. This is
a poet who does not presume to instruct, but to intimate, then she moves on.
there is indeed considerable movement in her verse, geographically and
emotionally. Let’s tour the ruins of Greece and drink ouzo and possibly pick olives and traipse over stony beaches and be
reminded of classical theatre and difficult times for women who loved with
unrestrained passion as was their wont in the ancient Aegean world. Isn’t there
a story or two about lovers torn apart? One also remembers Medea’s rather intemperate
feelings for Jason and ensuing difficulties. Gillis is not so unrestrained, but
there are poems gripped by subtleties of pain. In the wonderful “Shadow Plays
of the Ancients,” a multi-layered title if ever there was one, the poet and
presumably a lover are hiking along a mountainous trail “up the cliff into a
glade of artillery / aimed toward us like light unrolling from sleep, / light that
multiplies in leaves.” They are exposed and vulnerable, so much so that the
light, a form of artillery, “cranked open” their irises. Cranked is powerful
and unexpected. Greece is also the “theatres of the ancients.” Without
explaining, without dramatic dénouement, the poet and lover turn as if facing
yourself to listen to this, please: “then the scrape of steel drawn down bone.”
Read those words of the last line, the vowels of the monosyllables forcing
enunciation to slow down (remember Antonio’s speech in The Merchant of Venice: “in sooth I know not why I am so sad”). Gillis
ends the line on “bone.” The slowness reveals the emotion, the descent to the
very bone of experience. What has happened? What implicit pain? What
expectation is afoot on the mountainside? I love the verse and the food it
gives for thought. In another poem, “The Stranger,” the poet remembers a
friend, possibly a lover, who carved their initials into bark as lovers do. She
is alone, he is not there, she has come back to find it. Separation is not
without hurt. The poet says, “those scars became mine.” Ah, but is it pain? Or
is it indelible love? We remember that some trees in ancient Greece used to be
lovely ladies. Like constellations also.
in Greece she receives letters: “I fold up your last letter, stiff with the
unnamed./There are rooms to be found, a door.” This poem, “Leavetaking,” also
from the collection Swimming Among the
Ruins, opens with a rhetorical question: “Can you resist a name?” But the
name is short-hand for a complex process. A carpentry metaphor explains: “Turning hand to awl,/post is
already possible,/soon after, fence.” Put this within the context of love about
to go astray, to go wrong, to end, or on the contrary, love about to begin, to
enter new dimensions: the naming, if you will, opens the way to paradise or
desolation, something about which old Adam knew a thing or two, depending upon the unnamed that alters the quality of
the letter. We experience the full significance of the process in the two-part
poem, “Lindens,” describing not the contents of a fifth letter, this time
received in Germany, but the poet’s response to them. I quote the first part in
full because it reveals Gillis’s extraordinary sense of rhythm and control of
line, and how she intensifies emotion by relying upon concrete details which
lead to a powerful and apt final analogy.
your fifth letter it was clear
separation was complete
you wrote said I have fallen
love except words; your words
red weals on my skin.
I had passed near a river then
have broken a stick across my knees
flung it to the current to name us
to name the lines I broke in myself
the ways you broke me.
have chosen a linden twig, bare
if sun had lost its power.
love to play with forms: structuring a sestina, leaping after ghazals; haiku?
no, tanka. And the sonnet! Deadly in the wrong contemporary hands. I should
know. I tried, I failed. How daring to attempt the moribund and bring it to
life without cerements of the grave or wasted complexion or too stiff for words.
Gillis, in the stunning collection appropriately entitled Volta takes a chance, jumps high, and her verses spark as if
dancing on the edge of lightning. And yes, in “Crane, 2” she does haiku,
seventeen syllables exact.
A single feather
on slate beside the river.
The sky, soaked with stars.
Read it aloud, read it silently:
let it soak through your consciousness, consider the intimations, the image
from nature, the season, a kind of synecdoche, the movement from the specific
and passing moment to the eternal. Quite lovely. Volta: a significant name. We know it was a favourite dance of
great Elizabeth, which involves a jump in the arms of a partner. Of course,
there’s Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta, the Italian physicist who
developed the first battery, and hence the electrical unit – the volt. Gillis
gives a charge, to say the least. It’s also an Italian word for turn – voltare –
as there are indeed many turns and dancing steps and electrical currents in
revivification, a modern adaptation of old Petrarchan forms, can be called
turns in the widest sense, for Gillis is smart enough not to copy, not to
transliterate, nor to translate in the standard definition of the term. The
poet herself calls the sonnet “a fourteen line-piñata.” That is something to
reach for in a merry game, smash, and be showered with gifts and sweets. The
old form must be smashed, as Gillis so ably does, for in destruction lies
re-creation and plentiful rewards. She calls it translation, “the writing of
poems that interpret and represent other, earlier poems,” (as Surrey did to
Petrarch, as Gillis does to Surrey), “though that stretches the term up to,
possibly beyond, the break point, and a better word might be permutation.” Yes,
agreed, for each turn is a change of position and form, and a reader’s
complacency is stirred after an electrical jolt.
are fifteen “sonnets” in Volta, only
one or two consisting of the traditional fourteen lines, all inspired by Henry Surrey,
the English poet, who lost his head for misappropriating royal insignia, the
Tudors having turned decapitation into a national sport. Gillis writes: “Surrey
seriously stepped out of line.” I should think so. Sonnets are usually about
love, frustrated love, fulfilled love, disappointed or betrayed love, or love
from afar, the unattainable. Correct me if I am wrong. To achieve her goal of
making new love poetry that jolts us to the core, makes sensibility and
intelligence jolt to the voltage, Gillis herself must seriously step out of a
sonnet’s line, and she does so admirably, beginning with the marvelous “Love as
Extended Care.” Her witty notes at the back of the book where she makes an
effective and original connection between the sonneteer Surrey and the Ethiopian
queen Cassiopeia who now hangs upside down among the stars because “she stepped
out of the bounds of the strict social order,” explain the provenance of the
poem. Let’s focus on the here and now of her permutation. What a title, first
of all, with its pun on “extended care,” reflecting chronic sickness and
prolonged passion. The two can be dangerously close, if the ancient Greeks and
modern poets are anything to go by.
of danger, there’s a permutation of a Surrey sonnet called “Love as impending
disaster.” Not to be pedantic here, but the observation is germane: the
Elizabethans understood disaster in its literal sense as falling out of, or
away from, the stars, no longer favoured by the goddess Fortuna. The wheel
turns as if self-propelled, heads are turned, and worse. In love we are so
often at the onset of things, the impending, the implication, and perhaps the
inevitable, as the line “wheels beginning to roll” suggests.
this poem astrology gives way to architecture, metaphorically speaking, and
“the chambered heart / is a small apartment complex.” I like to think that last
word alludes to structure and psychology with echoes of labyrinthine confusion.
The persona falls instantly in love, not stricken by an exterior force, that oft-quoted
arrow, but compelled by inner reality, that chambered heart. Smitten by a man
who steps out of an elevator, she pursues her fancy, is consumed with unrequited love, mockingly aware of the picture she must present – potential
neighbourhood nuisance, stalker. She “knew this was unseemly” and in the end,
which is only a beginning, what can she do, “but stand in the lobby / til the
final hour?” The question, note, remains unanswered. Equally to the point,
built upon an extended metaphor, the language of the poem is essentially that
of conversation. It does not depend upon soft lyricism or nebulous adjectives,
but on everyday speech which, by a turn of the poet’s mind, is sharp,
self-mocking, the pain of disappointment or yearning ironically humorous,
understated as if expressed in a shrug.
old sonnets contain themselves tightly within their structures and sometimes
want a bit of fresh air, a loosening, which Gillis offers in plenitude, not
merely for whimsy’s sake, but for purposes of contemporary honesty and
openness. “Love poses a Question,” was inspired by a Surrey sonnet which, to
quote the poet’s notes, translates another eulogy to Wyatt, “In the rude age
when science was not so rife.” I suspect a bit of academic tongue in cheek here
in her use of “translate,” for the poem is rich with her own style and voice. It would seem that the
presence of the beloved provides sense, in terms of both reason and stability,
in a world “noisier now, and
depleted/of explanations.” Looking
back to a time when “things corresponded,” and the gods “fetched healing
elements,” she is all too keenly aware of land mines and car bombs, the
insufficiency of divine aid: “What is a bomb? Tell me, / because my heart
trembles.” Walking with her beloved in that rather strange territory of Alberta
hoodoos which like many I also have seen, she does not retreat from the
“world-as-it-is,” but recognizes it and where she now stands.
the sun rises
traffic intensifies for a time;
flood, then recede;
world, with you in it then
rattling over the plain.
Pause a moment, if you would, over the image of kingfishers, not flying
or flapping, but rattling (echo of bones), making a sound, making themselves
heard. Having seen and heard myself, I do know that rattle is an appropriate
term to describe the kingfisher’s cry, so Gillis is speaking a literal truth
here. She ends a poem, which is really about the nature of reality and
contemporary history without benefit of busybody gods making arbitrary
decisions, with an observation about nature, neither forcing nor poeticizing,
simply stating, the statement become poem. And thereby she creates a memorable
last line that resonates.
so much more to write about in these two volumes, much has been bypassed: the
intriguing use, for example, of insignificant details that burgeon into
meaning. Fascinating poems involving Durer, Magritte, Madame Blavatsky, a mill
brook compared to a “noisy lover,” and an utterly charming story about a father
polishing shoes on a stair: “I
thought God lived in that stair, and leaked out / whenever my father lifted the
tread.” There’s that supposedly insignificant detail. And those Grecians again,
but one must make an end, work piles up:
il faut cultiver mon jardin. Gillis does not strain after effects, and the
effect of not straining is the revelation of truth and beauty, if I may be
allowed to echo Keats who says so many interesting things about poetry in his
poems and especially in his letters. If there is more to know about her poetry,
at the moment that is all you need to know.
Volta. Winnipeg: Signature Editions, 2002.
Swimming Among the Ruins. Winnipeg: Nuage Editions, 2000.
Kenneth Radu has published five novels,
three volumes of poetry, a memoir, and four collections of short stories, the
latest being Sex in Russia (DC Books
Canada). He has won the Quebec Writers’ Federation prize for fiction twice, for
A Private Performance (Véhicule Press) and Distant Relations (Oberon Press). His first
book of stories, The Cost of Living
(The Muses’ Company/La compagnie des Muses) was shortlisted for the Governor
General’s Award for Fiction. Now retired from teaching, he lives with his wife
in St-Polycarpe, a village not far from Montreal.