Saturday, April 03, 2010

Suzanne Buffam, The Irrationalist

Often, I have read, the very act of “trying” can undermine one’s prospects of success. This makes trying difficult. The trick, they say, is to try without actually “trying.” Having finally decided to start trying we must keep on trying while trying not to feel like we are “trying” at all. We must above all try not to worry. Sometimes I worry that I am not trying not to try hard enough. (“Trying”)
When Canadian expat Suzanne Buffam’s first poetry collection, Past Imperfect (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2005) appeared, it was the result of some years of writing, with more poems abandoned than finally compiled (including a CBC Literary Award win), making it perhaps one of the most anticipated first Canadian poetry collections in years. Her second collection, The Irrationalist (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2010), is a collection of mediations in the form of poetry, merging concepts of the domestic with such as Aristotle. Listen to this fragment from the poem “Trying” (pp 63-7), prose-fragments accumulating into a poem during the waiting and anticipation of pregnancy:
It is one thing to marvel at the miracle of life, but quite another to try to explain it. almost every freshman biology textbook printed in the last fifty years contains the famous Miller-Urey experiment of 1953, in which Harold Urey and Stanley Miller tried to simulate early atmospheric conditions on Earth, in order to see what they could generate by adding an electrical spark. What they discovered were amino acids, the basic building blocks of life. From there, most books lead straight into a discussion of evolution, prompting the student to conclude that scientists have thus proven life can be created from a few nonliving chemicals. We tell this story to beginning students of biology, admitted Nobel laureate George Wald in his 1954 article, The Origin of Life, as though it represents a triumph of reason over mysticism. In fact, he points out, it is very nearly the opposite.
There is a quiet confidence that Buffam’s poems exude, a surety even through the insistence and exploration of constant questioning, moving their way through thought and the world. Her second section, middle of three, “little commentaries,” takes those small questions, small realizations and lets them strike as they come, writing reminiscent of Anne Carson’s Short Talks (1992), exploring the moments exactly on their own terms, within the size and shape of a simple, complex moment.
On the Logic of Dreams

While in dreams it is true
Anything can happen

Dreams often seem bound
By inexplicable rules.

In this way they resemble Poetry
Astronomy, Geometry, Love…
It’s as though Buffam’s poems are shaped out of internal monologues, internal dialogues that come out as they come, in poems that contain such wisdom but stop short of answers, working instead to focus on exploring what the questions might be. And the final poem in the collection, apart from the final section, that reads:


Low cirrocumulus clouds in the west.
War in the east.

Lift teabag from cup.
Add milk.

Ask if it is happiness
Or pleasure you prefer.

Watch the storm churn to the surface.
Shadows gather in the valley below.

To count them is to know their many shapes
Cannot be counted.

They must be numbered among.

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