Saskatoon to Edmonton,
The town we used to visit
is almost buried
in the dark. Pick out the rink and boarded
station, exhaust haloing an idling car.
Pick out the train’s bell flattening the more
we move away—now we’re the scene we saw
last winter from the road although
a year ahead and how far west who knows.
Midnight in the dome car: time enough
it seems, until the morning we arrive
then barely stop until another year
has passed. November is a train of cars
down the road spewing gravel and clearing
for once that night, town, its frosty ghosts; the one
we used to visit there is gone.
It is good to see a third full-length poetry collection by Yarrow, British Columbia writer Barbara Nickel, her Essential Tremor: poems (Caitlin Press, 2021), following The Gladys Elegies (Saskatoon SK: Coteau Books, 1997) and Domain: poems (Toronto ON: House of Anansi Press, 2007), as well as her collection of poems for younger readers, From the Top of a Grain Elevator (Vancouver BC: Beach Holme Publishers, 1999). The poems in Essential Tremor examine how to keep from getting lost, geographic missives and reportage, notes on her surroundings, offering “past / the tick-tock runway, docks, all moorings / recognizable or not, on the way to lost.” (“Passport”). “You ask me what I’ve given up: outside.” she writes, to open the poem “Anchoress (1),” “Need I elaborate?” She writes of the body, histories of loss and trauma, music and great stories, and poems that utilize Biblical passages as jumping-off points. She writes of the body, and the effect the world might have on it. “If only it were that: a little / trembling in the hand.” she writes, to open the title poem. “If we could tell / your leg be still and still it would.”
The collection includes a selection of mirror-poems, but what really strikes in the collection, possibly as an anchor across the collection as a whole, is “Corona,” a sequence of thirteen pandemic-era lyrics individually dated from March through to September, 2020. The poems within “Corona” provide an immediacy, and even an urgency, to the collection, even if certain poems around and outside the sequence might have been composed years prior. The tensions and anxieties that exist as threads throughout the collection exist more at the surface here, as she writes to open “3 (Spring),” “Family working, twining twigs into a nest, / cherry, trillium, corona bloom / while that buffoon condemns the WHO; on Zoom, / inside, outside, in danger zones, the rest / battle the king of everywhere / who won’t allow a service for the dead / and sneaks noiselessly into the lungs, is dread / on surfaces but strangely isn’t tearing // us apart [.]” Through the body and around it, the pandemic rages, writing both the intimacy of a body that requires protection, and an increased attention to the larger world, even through increased isolation. To open “10 (Essential),” she writes: “She walks ahead. We don’t touch yet / except this place within—my phone, her scroll / and fingerboard not skin but living, set / under her chin for life. She plays although / her audience has scattered into screens.” As part of a recent interview conducted by Rob Taylor for Read Local BC, Nickel responds:
I spoke earlier of current events in the “Corona” series, how the form became a medium for the news that always seemed to be breaking in the early stage of the pandemic. They were a bit like news shorts with some reflection and observation twisted in. Burt, in the article I mentioned earlier, says “The form of the sonnet, so often associated with erotic love, has become so prominent in English in part because poets use it to react to the news…” and then goes on to mention Milton, Wordsworth, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others. Without meaning to, I’d fallen into a tradition that was somehow risky and stable at the same time. Which again reflects the pandemic—the humdrum activity of going to the store or staying at home suddenly felt new and dangerous.
New—I think in the end that’s what keeps me coming back to the sonnet. It’s like writing on those old chalkboard school slates—you can erase it and come up with something entirely different every time, but always within the same small frame. In the “Corona” series, inspired by Donne’s “La Corona,” I switched from the Shakespearean sonnet that I’d used exclusively since the start, to the Italian form. It was really refreshing—suddenly I had this new shape to work with. I could play with the octave and the sestet, and use the “gulf” of a stanza break between octave and sestet to evoke different worlds (the world of the family, the world of the news). And the “new” rhyme pattern was liberating as well—the freedom suddenly of a rhyming pair in consecutive lines!