Monday, March 19, 2012

Jenna Butler, Wells

You used to be able to talk around the gaps, find words that were right enough, with acrobatic deftness. Now your tongue trips, mind falls flat like marram grass in a sea gale. Your leaps of logic confound even you, leave your listeners coughing into their hands, frantic for distraction.

You loved this beach once. The wind, the way it rips off the sea on a blustery day, what it drives up onto the sand. Whelks, polished stones, gull feathered battered like spindles. Bottle glass, bright colours scarified, filmed over. The same look in your eyes now when you turn to me, unsure, not wanting to ask. (“Wells”)
In Edmonton poet, editor and publisher Jenna Butler’s second trade collection, Wells (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2012), she “draws on her own experiences of her grandmother’s disappearance into senile dementia to reassemble a sensual world in longpoem form” (according to the press release). Disappearance narratives in the form of poems rarely work, but the dream-like quality of Butler’s long poem write the straight lines long enough they bleed. Wells reads less an interest in Butler attempting to document every losing detail than explore the haze, the misty places between knowing, doubting and disappearing.
The kitchen smelt often of quince. The hoary fruits inedible unless cooked, whereupon they resolved into a spring-pink jelly.

Inevitably, all other scents would be underwritten by tea. The Darjeeling your mother was so fond of, your father’s chicory coffee, a taste he’d developed during the War. How your mother tried to break him of it, that coffee, its scent bitter and deeply medicinal. He’d tell her, Habits aren’t horseshoes; they can’t be thrown so easily.

He came back from the War overwritten with translucent patches, the scar tissue gleaming as though he’d been drizzled with molten glass. Wherever the mustard gas had touched, it had burned, clear through the wool tunic and out along his limbs like marsh fire. When the sunlight found him now, it did so gingerly, his skin coming alight in silver, the scars blazing. As though, in stripping everything away from him, the gas had somehow given him this armour. He no longer rolled up his sleeves in the garden as he hefted the spade, worried that someone might be moved to pity. Your father came back from the War armoured inside his own skin. Against everything.

Even his own family.

Even you. (“Home”)
As Butler’s previous collection, Aphelion (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2010), explored the structure of the ghazals, Wells (named for the town of Wells-next-the-sea, England) explores the structure of the prose-poem, and the prairie narrative stretched out as long as a line can follow. Arranged in poem-sections, the poem-fragments hold up as a series of family photographs either blurry or apocryphal, and write the prairie sentence/long line with exquisite grace.

This volume, also, appears to be one of the first in the “Robert Kroetsch Series,” named for the late Alberta and University of Alberta Press author who died last spring in a tragic automobile accident. I wonder at this, pleased with the acknowledgement, but wonder why it was kept so quiet, and even now, seemingly barely-told or announced, but for a line or two in their catalogue?

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