Friday, September 09, 2005

Suzanne Buffam, Past Imperfect
2005, Anansi, $16.95 / $13.95 US
70 pages, isbn 0-88784-726-9

to have lived

without touching one
inch. Let the sting

of my wishing
you with me

be swift. (p. 46, Inklings)

Many of us have been waiting for the appearance of a first collection of poetry from Suzanne Buffam [Buffam reads at this years ottawa international writers festival] for years, whether since her appearance in the first Breathing Fire anthology (Harbour, 1996), or after she won the 1998 CBC Literary Award for poetry. A number of those from Breathing Fire have since had multiple collections, including Ken Babstock, Stephanie Bolster and Carmine Starnino, and Buffam was one of the last holdouts (although we are still waiting for a first trade collection from original Breathing Fire contributors Michael Londry, recently returned to Edmonton from schooling in the UK, and Thea Bowering, who has been studying at the University of Alberta).

Happiness Is Not The Only Happiness

My hair has grown well past my shoulders,
a feat I achieved by not cutting it.

Also this year I have learned something new
about daylight. It keeps us awake.

Likewise the moonlight, the searchlight,
the low blue glow on the dashboard

that carries each through her own private dark.
Rue is a sun-loving plant.

Tornadoes want us to chase them.
When summer finally arrives it arrives

in a rainstorm. Wind enters the spruce
and comes out wearing sparrows.

Some say water tastes best
from a bucket, some say a cupped palm. (p. 17)

Buffam writes graceful, intuitive poems, writing, as Don McKay once wrote, a poem that “a bird can land on without suspicion” (badly paraphrased), in rare pieces that can be trusted to make various leaps and meanderings. Bringing in a range of reference, the poems are propelled by their sharp, soft clarity, holding between pessimism and optimism even as she writes about forgotten knights, darkness and gardens, and all that has been left behind.

One hand tests the waters.
The other hand traces a name across the waves. (p. 20, Two Hands)

The closest comparison I can make is with Toronto Island poet Lise Downe, from her own third collection, Disturbances of Progress (Coach House Books, 2002), that writes:

Part Character, Part Study

If, in infancy
one finds oneself
considering the facts of marble, rushes
and flukes
one might unwittingly stumble upon
the making of tools to make the tools
that flip, turn and slide

whistling into the Renaissance
of late afternoon, for instance
and whirling there to step out to see
where one has arrived
if one has arrived

breathless, in fact
before the crayon enlargement
waiting for what rises from the tapered river
and enters the sky-blue sky.
All, in short
without flinching. (p. 46)

There seems so much resonance, even in straigtforward pieces, such as "Best-Case Scenario," that reads:

Best-Case Scenario

At second glance the leaves are bright green
and the dog is asleep. The omelette slides

from the pan intact. No one we know
serves us tea. It is sweet. It tastes faintly

exotic but also sad, like the jasmine blossoms
wilting in our hair. High, high above,

clouds grind light into dust-motes.
Because we have not died yet of hope,

nor its opposite, we remain here among
these creaturely feelings, indentured

to the small brown birds that will not
light on our hair. So be it. Our shadows

on the grass may be luckier, although
their fate is such that they won’t know it. (p. 16)


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