Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Emily Osborne, Safety Razor



Hardly can I hoist
my tongue or mount
song’s steelyard, forge verse
in my mind’s foundry.

My tear-sea swamps
poetry, yet verse flows
like gore from a giant’s
throat onto Hel’s port.

The cruel sea hacked through
the fence of my kin.
A gap rots, unfilled,
Where my sons flourished.

I carried one son’s corpse.
I carry word-timber,
leafed in language,
from the speech-shrine.

I’m intrigued by the lyric density of the narratives in Bowen Island, British Columbia-based poet Emily Osborne’s full-length debut, Safety Razor (Guelph ON: Gordon Hill Press, 2023). “Thunder strums through my earliest memory / of family dinner.” she writes, to open the opening poem, “Infant amnesia,” “Summer in Ontario, // lightning pulses on the table. In the post- / voltaic hush, Dad tunes the radio to sirens, // tornado. We rush to the basement but / I’m leashed to my highchair so Dad hauls // the hybrid downstairs, my bib scattering / remnants in the dim.” She offers stories, memories and short scenes that unfold and unfurl with such careful precision, physicality and rootedness, composed within a present that includes moments across time and space to meet corresponding moments of flesh and bone. As she writes as part of the poem “Diacritics”: “You said my consonants split and replicate / like cells in tumours.” Writing on scrimshaws, dinosaur bones, runes, DNA, relativity, pollution, weather, ballads and folk tales, Osborne’s poems are centred on her narrative self, but also populated with different eras and perspectives, and the collection includes a selection of poems that fold in a handful of her translations of Old Norse-Icelandic skaldic verse from the tenth to the twelfth centuries. I’m curious about her engagement with such particular histories and old forms, and her author biography offers that she “completed an MPhil and PhD at the University of Cambridge, in Old English and Old Norse Literature.”

“Verse making”

Goddess of the rune-carved mead mug,
I’ve smoothed the prow of this song-ship.
Lovely lady, tree who carries cups,
I deftly ply my tongue, the lathe of poems.

Organized into three sections—“FIRST CUTS,” “BARE BONES” and “FLESH MEETS”—the poems of Safety Razor are infused with a density and a depth, and there is an attentiveness and a precision to Osborne’s lyrics that is quite striking, setting words down with the deliberateness of letters carved directly into stone. “Art is younger than dirt,” the poem “Scrimshaw” ends, “only / as old as petroglyphs coating / earth’s aortas: […]” As well, I’m always intrigued by writers who are the offspring of other writers [see my recent Touch the Donkey interview with Victoria, British Columbia poet Hilary Clark, in which she responds to a question around the work of her son, Winnipeg poet Julian Day], and I recently found out that Osborne’s mother, Mary Willis, is the author of the poetry titles Under this World's Green Arches (1977) and Earth’s Only Light (1981), both of which appeared through the Fiddlehead Poetry Book series. I would be curious to know what echoes might have come through Osborne’s work from her mother, impossible to know for certain without knowing her mother’s work, or if there is any overt influence at all. “What else can I give my sons,” she writes, as part of “Heirlooms,” “from my mother but pale eyes and stories?”

Either way, this is a collection that is fully aware of roots that span distances vast and intimate, moving in a myriad of directions, and even further, as the collection closes with a small cluster of poems on new parenting. “Oh my son,” she writes, as part of “Labour, Eastertime 2019,” “from where did you come? / It’s true I didn’t see you until the curtain / lifted. But other hands are always first // to catch, pull, hold you. Alone / I feed you, while the postnatal / room’s analog snips through sleep.” Razor Safety is a collection aware of tethers and tendrils, aware of what holds and where she reaches, seeking out and acknowledging a plethora of connections and connective tissue, no matter the distances. Or, as she writes to close the poem “20-week scan”:

On these tones your father and I coast
through winter, forego foreign travel,

speak of you. His bass caroms images,
half accurate perhaps. After the first
made-up years, our words static back

until we’re parent ships projecting signals,
hoping you’ll echo. The bigger you grow,
the less we know you’ve heard us

our sonar broken
on open ocean

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