Saturday, August 18, 2007

Naomi Guttman's Wet Apples, White Blood

As former Montreal poet Naomi Guttman wrote as part of her inclusion in the anthology Sounds New (Dorion QC: The Muses' Co., 1990), edited by Peter van Toorn:
I have opted out of a statement on my writing because, I'd like the work to speak for itself.
If you've been paying attention to a particular kind of Canadian poetry long enough, you'll have noticed that it's been quite a while since expat-Canadian poet Naomi Guttman has had a poetry collection out. With the appearance now of her second collection, Wet Apples, White Blood (Montreal QC: McGill-Queen's University Press/The Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series, 2007), it officially makes sixteen years between titles, after her Reasons for Winter (London ON: Brick Books, 1991). It also makes it fourteen years since Guttman did a reading in Ottawa, since she launched her first collection at the long-late Stone Angel coffeehouse on June 16, 1993 (when she signed a copy of her first collection for me). With one of the loveliest book covers I've seen in a while, it exists as a single crimson red with a white drop of liquid edging slowly down from the top.


Cupid's season has expired.
The city breathes like one who's eaten well.
Past blue tongues of streetlamps, past bicycles
propped on garden rails, giant sunflowers,
and the grizzled neighbor pitting prunes
in his swept courtyard, you make your way.
From the park across the street children shout,
unwilling to come in, not caring how your luck
will run ― Whoever has no house now will never have one.

How long since a hummingbird danced
deep in your voicebox? You lust after every honeyed
every box of dripping vines. When your gaze falls
on a button in the gutter, takes in graffiti on a wall,
you think of them as signs. Remember how it fells
to fold a blanket one last time? Whoever you once were
has come and gone. Wrong number says the phone.
Whoever is alone will stay alone.

Tomorrow children will wake
and dance to freshly minted tunes
strung like sheets across the alleys,
not caring for your pleasures ― a radio
quartet, a book, a cup of tea.
Who then will do the work, will read,
write long letters through evening?

Tonight you slid the drapes across your window
and banked a blaze to heat the belly of a stone.
And when you tired of the hum of question and regret,
when you felt your power leaking in a mist,
you pushed yourself from the table,
grabbed a hat, forgave yourself for what you own,
and went to wander on the boulevards, up and down.

In her second poetry collection, Guttman writes a tight lyric than in some places feels restrained and even constrained, so tight that in some poems no air escapes.


Morning's palest hour wakes me ―
the baby takes my dripping lumen
then sleeps again.

I open the door to hear the tide.
Nothing moves, not even the rabbit
paused by the clothesline,
not the beach grass, cool in the dew.
The sky is close.

Copernicus displaced us
sending Earth adrift ―
no more circles, but ellipses,
no crystal spheres,
but planets tethered to the sun.

I want to hear sky music, a concerto
made of partial light and shadow,
available to all who wake
between two stillnesses, to climb
into Orion's outstretched arms,
lean my head against his giant shoulder,
and be lit within ―
a brand new constellation
nursing the stars.

What has she been doing in all that time between collections? At least in the recent past, the poems read as though Guttman has had a child. New parenting poems are always difficult, as so few of them are even interesting (I will refrain from listing failed attempts, as there seem far too many over the past decade or two, with Rachel Zucker as a magnificent exception). The question is asked, but never enough, how to write in a new way on what so many of us know so well? Why is it ordinary poems on new parenting or parenting in general are forgiven far more than ordinary poems on falling/being in love? At what point does subject somehow transcend quality? Not to say that this is a collection of bad parenting poems (consider Guttman perhaps a trigger for a far-flung issue). Instead, these are poems that have moments of being quite interesting, but I would somehow like far more out of; I would like to see her have pushed some of the pieces so much further. Still, the poems in Wet Apples, White Blood are far tighter, structurally complex and more compelling than her previous work, and the issue of mothering certainly isn’t new for Guttman's poetry, with pieces in her previous collection that tweak upon a gaze that looks both ways.

Whose Child

Whose child lives in a tin
box, no light in the dark,
never says her name.

Whose child, left by the door
every day in his basket,
the note printed large.

Whose child is that, her face
thick as ice, dress too tight.
But has a home ―
a mother stays home.

Whose child hunts bullets,
sleeps in the flag, fights by the book
that says he is right to die.

Whose child is shut
in the drawer, skim-milk and water
hushing her spidery cries. (Reasons for Winter)

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