Friday, December 17, 2004

Diana Brebner’s The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems

When Ottawa poet Diana Brebner died of cancer in 2001, bare weeks before her 45th birthday, it left holes in almost everyone that knew her. The author of three award-winning poetry collections, Radiant Life Forms (1990), The Golden Lotus (1993) and Flora & Fauna (1996) [all published by the now-defunct Netherlandic Press], she had been living with and through cancer for some time, even as she never took her attentions away from her family, friends and her writing. While raising two daughters, working for her husband’s business, and even running for public office, she still managed to win the League of Canadian Poets’ National Poetry Competition (1990), the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award (1990), the CBC Literary Competition (1992), the Pat Lowther Memorial Award (1993), and the Archibald Lampman Award (1997). When I met Diana, probably around 1992, she was eager to become a mentor to a younger writer, but we soon realized that she didn’t know what I was doing or working from, so instead we would meet for coffee, and talk about various subjects, whether writing, gossip or our kids. It was only in 1996 when Stephanie Bolster moved east from Vancouver that Diana found the kind of writer she was looking to help, and afterward, when she started teaching poetry workshops at Collected Works Bookstore. Becoming both mentor and friend to younger writers such as Anita Lahey (current editor of Arc), Lesley Buxton and Una McDonnell, it was much more an atmosphere of generosity and a kind of mothering than any teacher-student relationship. Soon after she died, a tribute was included in an issue of The New Quarterly (Volume XXI, No. 1, spring/summer 2001), that included pieces by Kim Jernigan, Bolster, Lahey, Buxton, Miriam Maust, John Vardon, Carol Shields, McDonnell and myself. Once you were part of her circle, it became both easy and essential to stay.

Thanks to the persistence of Stephanie Bolster, McGill-Queen’s University Press has just released The Ishtar Gate: Last and Selected Poems of Diana Brebner through their Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series (which has been very quite of late), edited with an introduction by Bolster. This is where all the current poets working within more conservative forms should be looking, from a poet who worked through more formal structures when they were less in favour than they seem now. Still, one of the poems that struck me from the "last poems" section is this one, a take-off of the last of Thompson’s ghazals from the posthumous collection Stilt Jack (Anansi, 1976); his brilliant collection of thirty-eight ghazals, published after he died at the age of thirty-eight. A break from much of her other work, it still works through the constraint, and the fine line between what she holds back, and what she gives.


"Should it be passion or grief" – John Thompson

Both come
unasked for. Grief
(not that I have)
has a sweetness to ist

that cuts
as fine as any knife.
Sweet edge
to the blade, you say.

I am being
followed by grief
(and it skulks
as I turn

unbidden) just
a sense of being.
Passion, as well,
is overwhelming

the air that
a knife cuts through.
Should it be
passion or grief

that we release?
What did you hold
by nerve, or a string?
Hands. Fingers. Fist.

Another of the pieces in the "last poems" section that struck, was this one, that read very much as a response to a review that Montreal poet and critic Carmine Starnino did for Arc #37 (Autumn 1996), "Style at Odds with Passion: Seven Ottawa Poets" that wrote:

"Diana Brebner’s poems also sequester themselves emotionally from their subjects. In Flora & Fauna, we see the suppression of any kind of personal disclosure and the adoption of a voice that has been thoroughly stripped of its introspective abilities. She wants no sentimental slippage. But often it is the heightened concentration that only emotion can allow that helps discipline oneself against phoniness. Brebner’s poetry, in its uncompromising suspicion of feeling, regularly outwits itself into artificiality." Hmmmmmmmm. Diana’s was certainly a dark humour, and it was hard to get on her bad side, but I wouldn’t want to be there. I’m not even going to bother disagreeing with the review, and instead let Diana’s words speak on behalf of both of us.


I will not assume that you
are an expert about feeling.

Nor will I believe that the
quiet & orderly among us have

not been thrown against walls,
that they write from imagination

and not from experience. If
I have not shed tears onto

your pages perhaps it is only
because I would not hurt you

with your indifference. When
you saw me, and asked how I

was doing, the kindest thing
I could do was to say

I was fine. I think of all
the women with bad teeth,

the ones who walk into doors,
the women with holes in

their walls and their lives
where pictures & memory

hung in the balance and how
that empty square on the wall

is a target for good intentions
that have become holy banners.

I will not assume that you
think less of me, nor will I.

After Diana died, Arc magazine founded the Diana Brebner Prize, now in its third year. Named for a poet "who fostered local literary talent, the Prize is awarded annually to an emerging National Capital Region poet who has yet to publish in book form. Run as a blind-submission competition, $500 is awarded to a single poet, based on the adjudication of an established poet living in the National Capital Region. One honorable mention is also chosen," with both prize-winning poem and honorable mention published in the most recent issue of Arc (#53, Winter 2004). This year the award was given to Betty Warrington-Kearsley, with an honorable mention going to Vivian Vavassis. Previous winners include Mary Trafford (2002) and Michael Blouin (2003). Information on future deadlines for the award can be found on the Arc magazine website.

1 comment:

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