Looking for an approach.A few months ago, I saw some poems by Halifax poet Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaassen that I hadn’t been expecting. Poems in the journal Riddle Fence that wrote out long lines in the most evocative way, moving through what I so rarely see in Canadian poetry; my own increasing envy, poems that are included in her third poetry collection, Lean-To (Wolfsville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2009). The author of two previous works, Clay Birds (1996) and Or (2004), she also won the CBC Literary Award in 2005 for the series “August: An Anniversary Suite,” later published as a chapbook by Gaspereau. But awards and previous works aside, it is through the poems in Lean-To that Klaassen has finally arrived, transcending her own previous writing.
The road rutted, water standing, trees barely standing aside.
It sends, simple. The car stopped, for a long time.
For a long time, we just listen to wind whining a mile from ocean, listen to the little boys in the back seat sing—where we are, where are we, where are we, where are we. (“South Shore”)
A penny for your thoughts. The peripheral
blue conductors—turquoise, azure—of Waskesiu.
I have a hunch, squinting
out from the blue-lined sunder of lacy shade on clay
shadows—or are they shadows?—
not quite able
to make out what you’re looking for.
The lake a dead giveaway of dark glasses glancing off
to where swimmers with Frisbees shriek and laugh and
trendy yellow two-pieces
are all that’s left
of the tanned invisibles.
What I’m looking for is
electric and dangerous,
sinking past the glitter, out of reach. Our blues
separated by the hard-packed rut of beach
just beyond the concrete
breaker. (“August after August: 9. CLAY”)
When did her writing become so long, languid, lovely and so porous? What I admire about the poems in this collection, this collection, is how Klaassen makes the long line stretch, and stretch out; how she stretches out the poem and the poems and the collection as the spaces of a taffy-pulled-out long poem. This is a series of single moments stretched, and one of the few examples, as well (apart from someone like Sylvia Legris), of a Canadian poet really comprehending space on the written page, and using it properly, in interesting and evocative ways, and ways appropriate to the poem itself, as opposed to merely arbitrary. This is the extended lyric stretched out into the pace and singularity of breathing.
How to get up into the trees, that high up? Boots and bicycles underneath.
They want the ropes, the broken pole—
They drop the ropes and climb the trees and study the facts and actual and squirrels—articles pertaining to how do some things fall down and some things get lost. Let’s say a woodcutter travelled through thunder with an axe and a map. What might fall? Scratched and solemn, almost invisible. Open the camera: no film. First they need to find a pulley, a lasso, they already have the map. Then down to get the axe (no!) and back up again, notes stashed, and then everybody down again, off to find the Fundy, one tree mystery solved, happy, all in all. (“Five Islands”)