From Kenneth Radu: Stepping Out of Line - An Appreciation of the Poetry of Susan Gillis
12 May 2011

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”:

mallows in the ditch, look, we said,

their pale cups open like satellite dishes

on radio tower stems, catching

signals and signalling.

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 the comparison.

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.

Today 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.

A bird came down the walk

It did not know I saw

It bit an angle worm in half

And 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,’ judiciously placed.

If, 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 sententiousness.

That 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.

I leaned, all particle –

Then rain came, old crow, beating its black wing.

(“At the Lookout,” Swimming Among the Ruins)

I 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.

What’s hardest is not to know why

but how anything happens. To say, for example,

Back home in the snow an owl set out from a tree.

“Postcards From London,” Swimming Among the Ruins.

Many 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.

Restless wanderer, if at morning the sea …

You shook open your mat and sang the prayers,

then you vanished from my life.

To sit for hours declining tea in the police station, then finally

accepting. 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.

Listen 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 orchard.

Life’s 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:

but the shout continued on past both Marilyn

and the creek, visible now through the trees,

to a pile of white bones, big ones,

a large animal picked,

their light clarifying the murk the way

creekwater sharpens the sound of mud,

the way ospreys dive after rain.

Pulling 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.

I 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.

There’s nothing mysterious after all;

mud fills a space between roots,

a 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.

And 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 applause.

Allow 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.

While 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.

By your fifth letter it was clear

your separation was complete

Everything you wrote said I have fallen

in love except words; your words

raised red weals on my skin.

If I had passed near a river then

I’d have broken a stick across my knees

and flung it to the current to name us

and to name the lines I broke in myself

and the ways you broke me.

I’d have chosen a linden twig, bare

--as if sun had lost its power.

Poets 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 this collection.

A 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.

There 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.

Speaking 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.

In 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.

Those 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.

Mornings, the sun rises

and traffic intensifies for a time;

oceans flood, then recede;

modulations without end.

The world, with you in it then

kingfishers, 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.

There’s 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

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.

More Articles