Tao of Reading Poetry
OUT-look: a quarterly review column
by Karla Linn Merrifield
Of Coffee Pots and the Ineffable
Poetry works in mysterious ways. The Tao of poetry — its way — is
to provide us, its readers and its writers, the ineffable serendipity of discovery. What is family? What about our spirituality
and why do we need God? Why do we love? How do the lost find their way? Who are we anyway? Poetry responds to life’s
mysteries; we receive fleeting gifts of insight. When we read a really good poem — we know one when we feel it in our
bones — we discover ourselves. Canadian poet Lorna Crozier’s The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems is
a thick book of such poems, a book rich with glimmering discoveries.
My bones are still
vibrating with Crozier’s many really good poems. No doubt so are Laury Egan’s. This review comes to these pages
from Egan, poet, fine arts photographer and TCE contributor, who claims Crozier is currently her favorite poet.
Egan discovered The Blue Hour via a circuitous, mysterious route. To paraphrase what she
says in her TCE Reader Survey:
Egan’s cousin, who lives in Victoria, BC, sent
her a photography book through Amazon.com for Christmas. A short while thereafter, she then received Lorna Crozier's book
— but had no idea who had sent it. She reports being “mystified,” so asked all her friends if one of them
had sent The Blue Hour. None had. Finally, when Egan emailed her cousin to thank him for the photo book, he explained
that he’d selected The Blue Hour for himself, but had inadvertently forgotten to change the designation for the
address from hers to his. . . . Consequently, Amazon sent Crozier’s book to Egan. She exclaimed, it “came to the
right person by fate.”
Note her words: “Mystified.” “By fate.”
Poetry does indeed work in mysterious ways. A few months later, The Blue Hour fell into my hands, a gift from
Laury Egan when I visited her in her New Jersey home last April. Now it turns out, the book was a most auspicious
The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems is a definitive selection of poems
drawn from the best work of an icon of Canadian poetry. An icon? Yes. As a student of Canadian poetry since the early '70s
and unabashed Canadaphile, I can state with conviction that Crozier is the Queen Mother of contemporary Canadian poets, a
sprawling group whom I keep close tabs on and whose work I return to again and again. I confess Crozier’s a Canadian
poet I hadn’t gotten around to reading (too many poets, not enough time!), but I can now say that I think you’ll
find she’s as good as — if not better than — Ted Kooser and Billy Collins. And The Blue Hour represents
the best of her best.
Big Questions, Visionary Poems
Crozier throws life
in your face— like peony petals on a June lawn with one hand, and a fistful of sleet in a January thaw with the other.
She is a poet of all earthly seasons, and of the heart.
As Egan remarked in her Reader
Survey, “Crozier is a very polished stylist, who can write portraits with an admirable combination of accuracy, empathy,
and distance.” Thus Crozier exposes us to the inner workings of family with that “admirable combination”
in a portrait poem: “The Mother: Without Blessing.” It opens: “One daughter’s too good for
me, the other a whore.” Crozier tucks us, her readers, into a corner of a room with a cloak of invisibility; we overhear
the poem’s speaker, the Everymother who laments about the latter daughter: “She used to care for me, / the spitting
image, some would say,” and of the former one, “The younger one won’t visit / with her husband.” The
mother asks herself: “How can so much happen / then be gone?” She reflects on her two daughters’ lives and
admits despair. The poem ends:
Once, I spoke in tongues.
Now words dissolve
like wafers in my mouth,
bland and thin,
Ursula Le Guin says of The
Blue Hour poems, Crozier is a “marvellous Canadian poet; she is storyteller, truth-teller, visionary.” I agree.
Crozier asks the big questions of life. So? What about this business of our spirituality and why do we need God?
Crozier teaches us in “Prayers of Snow” that “Snow is a lesson in forgetting…”
She teaches us: “It prays to the soft fall of your boots.”
We must dress warmly
for encounters with the self, one’s soul. As we trudge into the future lugging our doubts along, we are reminded in
“Packing for the Future: Instructions:” “Take the thickest socks. / Wherever you’re going /
you’ll have to walk.” Whatever gods there be dwell within us and we must slow down to know them, must trod through
snow if we have to. Self-reflection is hard work. But it is made easier if we take Crozier’s advice. “Packing
for the Future” concludes: “Always travel lighter / than the heart.”
That Dangerous Everyday
Thing Called Love
Oh, yes, and why do we love? In our youth, we love because it’s
dangerous; it requires courageous recklessness. In “The Wild Boys” Crozier reminds us:
It was the wild ones you loved best,
the boys who sat surly at the front
every teacher moved them,
the ones who finished midterms
first, who showed up late,
then never showed at all.
That’s the opening stanza. Three equally
evocative stanzas later, she muses:
The wild boys had
tongues, the dirtiest jokes,
and anyone who’d listen
what they’d done to a girl
the night before
though in the narrow darkness
of a car or on a blanket
by the dam where eels slid
just beneath the surface, you knew
you did it to each other
and the words they
said were sweet.
A few lines later, the poem ends:
it is their brokenness
you long to touch, the parts
they left behind or lost
as they learned too soon
too many years ago
what it took and took
to be a man.
In old age, when death looms,
we find we can love, no matter what. Crozier’s poem, “Last Testaments,” shows us that. If we are
like the poem’s wife, the danger is cancer and loving one’s husband has become a practical matter.
The morning of the day she died
she took him down the basement,
how to separate
the clothes, set the dials,
how to hang his shirts and pants
so the creases would fall out.
If we are like the “man with a worn-out heart”
in the second stanza of that poem, we will follow suit in loving our wives. He:
sold his tools so his wife
be left with that part of him
to deal with.
Even the suicide victim is able to love until the instant of her death. “Last Testaments”
Before she walked into the river
and didn’t come back,
the woman who couldn’t remember
the day of the week
or the faces of her children,
made a list of all the men
left it for her husband by the coffee pot,
his name on the bottom,
A woman’s washer-dryer. A man’s tools. A couple’s coffee pot — Crozier’s images of love’s
fierce attachment, writ in the quotidian. No wonder Tanis MaDonald, in her review of The Blue Hour, writes in the journal
Prairie Fire: “Nobody writes about sex and death quite like Lorna Crozier . . . [She] moves from colloquialism
to grand idea with shocking ease.”
Moving by Increments toward Discovery
On our behalf, Crozier has wrestled with answers to the immense questions: How do the lost find their way? Who are
we, where are we, anyway? She responds with “astonishing coherence and beauty,” so says Alberto Manguel in The
London Times Literary Supplement.
We find our way home by the grace of Nature. We
find our way observing geese in migration: In “Wild Geese,” Crozier writes: “The wild geese fly /
the same pathways / they have followed for centuries. // There is comfort in this. . . .” We learn Nature’s language:
“I am speaking / in the voice of crow, the voice of rain,” Crozer explains in “What I Gave You Truly,”
spoken by Eve to Adam in their exile from Eden. We find out who we are by listening to the poem “Ice-fog,”
for within ice-fog, “The air annunciates.” And the “hoarfrost / hallucinates a thousand shards of bone.”
The natural world around us can enable us to venture into our deepest selves. Even the gopher, “earth-otter” as
Crozier calls it in “A Prophet in His Own Country,” holds one of those glimmering discoveries I promised:
How can you not believe an animal
who goes down headfirst
into darkness, into
pull of gravity beneath him?
What faith that takes!
Finally, in perfect keeping
with the theme of this issue of The Centrifugal Eye, Crozier gives readers a full portion of mystery itself. We must
always take into account the ineffable. Mystery is there as you have glimpsed in “Prayers of Snow” and
“Ice-Fog.” Mystery is there in “Evolution in Moonlight,” too. Hence:
Always you come back to the moon:
old man, bull’s horn, winter hare,
thin body of an ancient god
placed there on the tongue.
Mystery is at the heart of “Shadow,” the poem in which we find the book's title line.
In the poem, she imagines being a shadow on “one side of a tree.” And this is what it’s like to be such
a two-dimensional mystery. It is:
To move by increments
a beautiful equation, like the moon
ripening above the golden city.
To be doppelganger,
the soft underside of wings,
the part of cumulus that slides
then promises of rain across the wheat.
To be blue
simply because snow has fallen
and it’s the blue hour of the day.
the last poem in the book, “The Weight of August,” Crozier concludes: “We live with who we are and
not / what we once wanted.” Amen.
Crozier, who was born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan,
has written fourteen books of poetry. Start with The Blue Hour of the Day: Collected Poems. It’s from McClelland
& Stewart, and is widely available. Take your time, read as slowly as you would walk through snow and ice-fog. A glittering
journey of discovery awaits.
For more about Lorna Crozier, visit her website. And don’t miss her “Notes on Writing” in those pages.
***Column Editor’s Note:
What’s your story behind a book that
you’ve read and desire others to read? What path led you to that book? Tell me. Just complete our Reader Survey. From your stories I’ll select the books and I’ll review them for
The Centrifugal Eye for all our readers
in future issues. Give me something new to rave about!