There has been a shift in the work of Montreal poet and translator Erin Mouré over the past few books, beginning, perhaps, with her translation Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person (Anansi, 2001), turning her own poems from the Portuguese of Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa's O Guardador de Rebanhos, and continuing into the collections that followed, including O Cidadán (Anansi, 2002) and her Little Theatres (Anansi, 2005) [see my review of such here]. The author of a number of previous poetry collections — Empire, York Street (Anansi, 1979), The Whisky Vigil (chapbook, Harbour, 1981), Wanted Alive (Anansi, 1983), Domestic Fuel (Anansi, 1985), Furious (Anansi, 1988, 1992), WSW (Véhicule, 1989), Sheepish Beauty, Civilian Love (Véhicule, 1992), The Green Word: Selected Poems 1973-1992 (Oxford University Press, 1994), Search Procedures (Anansi, 1996), The Frame of a Book (or A Frame of the Book) (Anansi, 1999; Sun & Moon, Los Angeles, 1999) and Pillage Laud (Moveable Type Books, 1999) — her books work almost less as individual books and more as sequences of books that begin to group together, working books as couples or trios. In hindsight, I don’t think anyone could argue that her two books with Montreal publisher Véhicule Press certainly fit together almost as a single unit, compared to the rest of her work, or her two collections with Anansi in the late 1990s. Her newest poetry collection, O Cadoiro, poems (Anansi, 2007) has ties that begin with her Cariro/Pessoa transelation, but fit somehow more along a path begun with her subsequent collection, working a back and forth through translating Galician-Portuguese into an argument about authorship.
It was that thread and that
tower I climbed threading every
hour and not again craving
death instead of ache in every
breath marked alone, aloneness where I
Do you make stones of words as towers
are of stones?
(when you come back; speak to me)
(I still have that thread, that tower)
Gonçal Eanes Do Vinhal
Mouré's whole work has been one of exploring boundaries, whether that of lyricism, citizenship, identity, language theory and challenging language itself, working not the poem separate from theory but incorporating theory. If poems can be called a thinking art, why not? Working her last few collections working the places between Galician-Portuguese and English, Mouré moves further from her earlier works through English and French, even as the poems root themselves deeper through some pretty heavy theory and theorists. There is an interesting way that Mouré uses the language, weaving a kind of lightness and wide range of worked speech, even while incorporating the weight of theorists such as Foucault, Agamben, Lacan and others, without letting the weight take over. How do the poems not collapse from such theoretical weight? How does the theory not simply get in the way of the poetry? How does the weight not take over? In her "in lieu of a postface" in O Cadoiro, poems (a postface to the collection has been posted online in pdf format at www.anansi.ca/ocadoiro/postface), Mouré writes:
O cadoiro is, literally, the place where falling is made. In Galician, cadoiro is one word for waterfall. Cataract, perhaps. Thus, the fall. This to me is the place of poetry, for whoever writes poetry must be prepared, ever, to fall down.What is it about falling that entices? Lately I've been noticing everyone working a version of the poem that doesn’t work, from Phyllis Webb and Jon Paul Fiorentino's notions of the failure in poetry, to Mouré's old pal Phil Hall, suggesting that every poet should have a collection that completely fails. Is it as simple as the failure, or is it the Biblical fall from Heaven, and into the depth of what cannot be spoken? What is it about the fall that attracts?
My crux or crossing: to lean into time's fissure to play with and resorb the language of lyric from a time when the poetry of Western Europe first broke free from ecclesiastical modes of praise and epic modes of heroic glory. The poems of the medieval Iberian songbooks, written in Galician-Portuguese, set aside God and history to turn toward … another human. Lyric was the fulcrum of this turn, and Galician its human language, for it was never ecclesiastical and never the language of history, but the idiom of emigration and of place's longing, of the beloved, of the bereft. In these poems, Dante's salvation narrative was not yet operative.
They are fount for my own inventions and coalects, which are but small plaints, rustlings, a ruxarruxe, an altermundismo or "otherworld-wantingness" where habitation is possible but tenuous, for though poems recuperate, they do not solve.
On an island, there re waves everywhere!
A small island.
Simon became Peter and Peter became Pedra!
A small island.
(Will you come?)
I don t know how to row a boat.
I m no swimmer either.
(Will you come?)
e u~a! I thought I d see you
But there s no boat on the high sea!
The waves arrive empty.
(Will you still come?)
There is a particular kind of lyric that Mouré not only writes, but embraces; and after the large projects that came before, such as Search Procedures (1996), The Frame of a Book (or A Frame of the Book) (1999) and Pillage Laud (1999), the small projects that she has worked since seem a structural step backwards, but only if, as a reader, there is something you miss in how she works the finely-honed lyric into alternate directions, and her constant exploration of the self, from citizen, female and feminine, watching her lyric drop every so often from the deliberate heaviness she puts there. In the Montreal Review of Books, writing on her previous collection, Little Theatres (2005), Edmonton poet Bert Almon wrote:
Mouré's book contains poems and prose passages about "little theatres" that are attributed to a Montreal writer named Elisa Sampedrin, who appears to be a heteronym of Mouré herself. The "heteronym" is a method devised by one of her favorite authors, Fernando Pessoa, who created a series of imaginary poets and wrote poems from their point of view.Or, as Mouré herself wrote in her preface to her O Cidadán (2002):
To intersect a word: citizen. To find out what could intend/distend it, today. O cidadán. A word we recognize though we know not its language. It can't be found in French, Spanish, Portuguese dictionaries. It seems inflected "masculine." And, as such, it has a feminine supplement. Yet if I said "a cidadá" I would only be speaking of 52% of the world, and it's the remainder that inflects the generic, the cidadán. How can a woman then inhabit the general (visibly and semantically skewing it)? How can she speak from the generic at all, without vanishing behind its screen of transcendent value? In this book, I decided, I will step into it just by a move in discourse. I, a woman: o cidadán. As if "citizen" in our time can only be dislodged when spoken from a "minor" tongue, one historically persistent despite external and internal pressures, and by a woman who bears ― as lesbian in a civic frame ― a policed sexuality. Unha cidadán: a semantic pandemonium. If a name's force or power is "a historicity … a sedimentation, a repetition that congeals," (Butler) can the name be reinvested or infested, fenestrated … set in motion again? Unmoored? Her semblance? Upsetting the structure/stricture even momentarily. To en(in)dure, perdure.[Erin Mouré launches her poetry collection at the ottawa international writers festival as part of Poetry Cabaret #4 with Genni Gunn and Erin Knight, 6pm, Saturday, April 21]