Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Anatomy of Clay, Gillian Sze


The man on Queen Street
spends his days kneeling before a broken city,
cheating gravity as he builds towers
with bricks,
rocks and cinder blocks.

He can teach me something about balance.

On a day when the skies
Are more tiring to reach
I will ask for my turn, look down,
watch him break and re-erect me
with goldenrods for kneecaps,
hair of sweetgrass,
insides flavoured like mint and promise.

The crowd will toss coins at my feet
and I will grow, tall as a ponderosa
amidst his concrete, votive offering.

I am intrigued by the poems in Montreal poet Gillian Sze’s [see her 12 or 20 questions here] second poetry collection, The Anatomy of Clay (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2011), a follow-up to a collection she launched in Ottawa at the small press book fair, her Fish Bones (Montreal QC: DC Books, 2009). The poems in Sze’s The Anatomy of Clay exist side by side as an extended suite on, as the back cover claims, “the Promethean myth of human creation,” and “the individual as a sentient mystery.” What does it mean to live, to think or even know, and are the great questions more important than the great answers? In an article on Sze’s new collection in the spring 2011 issue of Montreal Review of Books, Abby Paige sees a comparison between these pieces and snapshots, writing:

Her poems are snapshots that, by focusing with photographic detail on the humdrum of the everyday, evoke life’s less effable animating forces. “I would never call myself a photographer, but I’m like that,” she says, meaning a bit of a voyeur, interested in framing an image to tell a story. By capturing ordinary moments, Sze enacts a search for what, if anything, is universal in human experience. she is reticent about any grand thematic pronouncements, though. “It’s a book about people,” she smiles, knowing the description is as incomplete as it is apt.

Sze’s poems of small and smaller narratives etch out a series of human movements, sketches carved to illuminate simply who and how we are, exploring the remarkable unremarkable moments. These poems are smart, and I’m intrigued by her thoughtful wisdom and meandering, her carefree and deliberate movement, even in those poems where her light touch sometimes feel writing out too many steps in a straight line, giving the reader too much. Is this simply a matter of time, waiting for her subtleties to work themselves out? In some of these pieces, I wonder: do we need to see every step of her journey, like long division? Do we need to see every step? I like the connections she makes, but there are moments I’d like to see connected less obviously, and more subtly, leaving space for the reader to enter. As Paige continues:

Indeed, many of the new poems begin with an observed moment – a neighbour talking to his plants, a busker attracting a crowd on a street corner, birth in a nest in the tree outside the bathroom window – and develop as the poet finds or imagines connection.

The statements and questions in some of these pieces are sometimes far more compelling than the more straightforward descriptive poems, but in the end, they manage to balance each other out (the comprehension of a good eye in selecting order, whether by author or editor or both), making these poems, perhaps, not easily set aside for magazine or journal submissions. It makes me wonder: with more writers conceiving full book-length projects as opposed to collections of individual poems, is the idea of the literary journal publishing a poem or three per writer becoming outdated? What is the reader of literary journals potentially missing?


She is there every night at 9:08,
four stops before his route ends.

The aisle is always clogged,
so she stands near him,

gripping the pole.
Signs of a crowded bus

show on her face
in the rear-view mirror.

This summer,
he was early just once,

and he didn’t pull from the curb,
even when feet carped the ground.

He just watched her
run past the dumpster

and, under the streetlight,
like a loose piece of paper,

fly straight through
his door.

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