Concrete and Wild Carrot by Margaret Avison
Reviewed by Melanie Brannagan (Prairie Fire Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2012))
With Concrete and Wild Carrot, Margaret Avison justly solidifies her reputation as one of Canada’s premier poets. These poems walk the fine edges between daring and comfort and between questioning and certainty: “(What would our choice have been / if we had understood?)” she asks, referring to Adam and Eve’s fall from divine favour (60). She encapsulates the paradox of the Biblical story with grace and humility: “Drawn to disobey / they awoke to shame—and God- // like comprehension of pain, / of broken as well as good” (60). Though they have transgressed, Adam and Eve’s transgression yields not only the possibility of redemption, which she acknowledges at the close of “Leading Questions,” but also an immediate comprehension of good. She rewrites the myth of the fall by focusing on God’s sadness rather than his anger: “At evening, now forsaken / by our choice, was that to Him / as since to us, heartbreaking?” she asks (60). Her questions, posed with humility, precede a meditation of wonder rather than criticism. She marvels at God, who “taught the Jews to weave / rich fabrics for the abode / He would live in / [….] / and long since He has promised to prepare / us for the robe He hopes His guests that Day will wear” (60-1). Even while she wonders at God’s generosity, she implicitly notes His hubris. He teaches the Jews to weave fabrics not for their own purposes but for His. Her critique, though, is subtle, and her poems balanced.
The religious themes that Avison explores bear a unique relevance on her life. She likens her meditations on the entombment of Christ to a lifeline (62). Her poetic persona’s life is based on and around her religious beliefs. If, because of my own discomfort with and distrust of organized religion, I found the pervasiveness of Avison’s faith overpowering at times, I was struck by the joy she took in creation: “The perfection of / created Being, in the perfect / morning was born from the walker-by-the-sea’s / imagination” (71).
Avison boldly and gracefully takes on what she sees as the degeneration of society. In “Alternative to Riots but All Citizens Must Play,” she laments that the world has “imprisoned” (77) individuals’ “skills and / achievements” (77), robbing humanity of what she considers its foundation: “We turn into a monstrous / sameness, a jumble / within one skin, / a skin pulled taut / until it hurts / the whole ungeographical world of us” (78), she says in response to the technological innovation that reduces society to an undifferentiated mass. Avison’s religious and philosophical meditations are overplayed by a complementary awareness of her surroundings: “we / also shall say goodbye to / trees and cherished friends and / sunsets and crunching snow” she writes (72). The concreteness with which Avison is able to imagine and inhabit space make her meditations more accessible. Her inner landscapes are inhabited by “lanes and mews”(55) through which the city manifests its life. In “Lament for the Byways” she mourns the occlusion of the city’s former familiarity by “handsome new high-rises” (55), concluding that these improvements serve only to stifle the source of Toronto’s life.
Her Toronto is characterized by a community that stretches through time. The collection is not only filled with poems memorializing friends who have died, which themselves create an imagined community, but it also contains poems that fuse the past and the present. In “Pacing the Turn of the Year,” the first poem in the collection, Avison links a contemporary August day with the day World War II ended in Europe. She shifts between the two historical periods with a nearly seamless grace:
… everybody, on bikes
or park benches or
the city buses, dazed,
wended their way anywhere
on the odd quiet morning
the European War was
somehow ended [.] (7-8)
The shift in tense allows Avison to meditate on the ephemeral nature of celebration. At the close of World War II, “nobody/ felt like cavorting, singing, / dancing, as their parents, 1918, / in November, had” (8), and contemporary celebrants “toss their curls and / rollerblade past” the question of whether this “new is going to last” (8). Far from criticizing contemporary youth for celebrating without contemplation, Avison suggests that the very ritual of celebration is about discovery. Rather, she seems to lament that “Part of a celebration / is to discover / […] how / painful hope can be” (9). Avison’s engagement with the present retrospectively adds a dimension of mourning to her poems. However, the tone of mourning in Avison’s poems is balanced by exuberant depictions of remembered wonder. Her memory of her response to discovering that only water could make colourful pictures appear in “Present from Ted” is one such example: “‘Behold!’ / my whole being sang out, for ‘see’ / would not have been adequate” (10). The wisdom in Concrete and Wild Carrot lies in the grace with which Avison negotiates this balance between mourning and wonder throughout the book.
Melanie Brannagan is a graduate student in English at the University of Manitoba.