Saturday, October 04, 2008

during, by Karen Houle

While at Eden Mills Writers' Festival in September [see a poem here; see my festival report here], I was able to hear Guelph poet Karen Houle launch her second poetry collection, during (Wolfville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2008), a follow-up to her Ballast (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2000). during is constructed in four movements—During, Duration, Endure and Durable—in (as the back cover tells us) "a study of being in process and of seeing through." Houle manages a series of sharp, carved lines that break their way across the page in an almost furious restraint, letting nothing else through, and nothing get by, invoking and skimming the personal to become something deeper.


The woodcutter and I rest in needle-dry troughs.

Burnt-out balsams lie on their good sides,
cough and draw the shades.

He waits hard.
Hands me pulp.

Loyalty falls
steady as ash
builds up,

I run my good finger along his ledge:
verify the smudge; see if he's still there.

He's still there.

What exactly is his little waiting room made of?

Certainly not my first love
of what is perishable.

The press release for the book, quoting Houle, writes:
"In the American Rephotographic Survey," says Houle, "Mark Klett and other major American photographers went to the exact locales of famous, iconic American landscape photographs, like Eadweard Muybridge's 'Falls of the Yousemite from Glacier Rock, No. 36, 1872', and took another photograph a whole century after the original images were made. The photos reveal that our expectations about what happens during the passage of that amount of time are often dead wrong. In some photos, one can't even tell that one is at the same starting point: whole frames of reference are gone. In other cases, though, nothing much looked any different. And in still other cases, the natural landscape actually seemed richer, greener, less human-touched than the original sites. In my poetry, I want to do with words the same kind of complexifying: taking a pretty miserable starting point, and spin out, aurally and lyrically, a wider band of possibility of what could follow from that miserable start. Or, alternately, take a placid or banal opening vista and show the processes of decay or creepiness start to colonize that pretty space. When I went to see Klett in Tempe, Arizona, in February of 2007 he showed me 8 x 10 inch black and whites from his recent Time Studies (2006) series. Mark said to me, of this work: I wanted to try to show what a moment looks like, to record the duration of time. I found that to be a pretty fair description of what I think I'm doing in these poems: trying to get the 'feel' of time, a sharp piercing moment, a straight stretch of one-lane history, a seemingly endless debacle. I hope that the reader is confounded, contradicted. I hope sometimes she finds her expectations confirmed; comes away from a poem knowing she knows something about how things tend to happen. But also I hope she stumbles, at moments, into an entirely other, unexpected outcome. Caught sound asleep in pessimism, may she wake up, remembering the world around her is also capable of resilience, repair, beauty."
There is something about her use of the longer line and lines that reminds a bit of the poetry of Monty Reid, who takes small moments and stretches them. Houle, instead, manages those same small moments and stretches, but accumulates moment after moment into what eventually work out to be her poems, lining up moments into an often indirect line. Houle's poems are sometimes written as extended thoughts, trains that leap from station to station but sometimes linger, holding for a bit, such as in the longer piece "ON THE PAPER ANNIVERSARY OF THE HIGH-WIRE ACT" that begins:

A fact is brutal it stands over a hole.

It concentrates: Something happened here.

Water ached a canyon
out of cave-in
sand ridge

or heart muscle: striated, trying
for a legible
caving in underfoot.

I lie over the same hole. I sleep there most nights.

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