Sunday, February 11, 2024

Robert Colman, Ghost Work: Poems


In the Ribs of the Whale

Before weeding Penguins and pulp fiction for the Sally Ann, my sister photographs his den. So many books. aspiration. Was there a goal, once, beyond connection? I pick out a German primer, Bertrand Russell’s short fictions, a guide to coastal birds of the United States. When did the world seem so knowable? My sister covets his teak desk, but it is anchor, not answer, Churchillian without a voicebox; outside the carapace of shelves, just some wayward sailor, landlocked, the pewter ashtray his spirit lamp. Selected wisdoms are now their own animal, wandering. When I read to him from its rows he joins me in snatches of poetry, lifts the book from my hand, turns it, caresses, cautiously riffling the pages, recalling his own face.

“I used to own this,” he says.

I’m intrigued by Newmarket, Ontario poet Robert Colman’s fourth full-length collection, Ghost Work: Poems (Windsor ON: Palimpsest Press, 2024), “a suite of poems that explores a son’s gradual loss of his father from dementia.” The loss of a parent is one of those universal experiences, one poets have been articulating and exploring for as long as poems have existed, and the first-person narratives of Colman’s latest collection around the slow erosion of his father offers lines and phrases set with subtle force, a striking ease and the most delicate care. “This walk is not ruined by absence— / loss comes easy to the cedars,” he writes, to close the short poem “To Test an Absence,” “birch peel and its sticky skin / that tests memory’s rule, what we hope / we can trust as we walk above / on what seems like solid ground.” This is a book of ghosts, made more difficult for the slow erosion of his father’s self throughout dementia (comparable, in certain ways, to my own father’s slow physical erosion due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). In the poem “Name,” Colman writes on regularly calling his father “father,” so as to remind him their relationship, a poem striking and heart-wrenching for that simple and ongoing detail. “I run on as if words could shape an anchor,” he writes, “shape a father unoccluded, riven of doubt.” And yet, I find Colman’s more compelling poems are the ones where he approaches his subject at a bit of an angle, allowing the language to propel, over the poems set to articulate a particular bit of information. “Tonight we char wild boar,” he writes, as part of the six poem sequence “Lost on the Way to Tortosa,” “aflame in tree boles. Yet here in the ash, / mockingly, new growth. // This is the flicker he misses, the nonsense spark. / I hear him, an ocean away, testing a tune.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful poems and very relatable for those of us with parents who are gradually losing themselves to dementia.