Two new collections of poetry, one from Saskatoon’s Elizabeth Philips and the other from Halifax’s Don Domanski, find both poets doing a great deal of walking, though for Philips the effort is palpable — more like hiking with a lot of sweating. Domanski, on the other hand, moves much more slowly, stopping frequently for detailed observations. Both poets’ perambulations take them to the edge of things, to the in-between place.
Philips sets her tone early with the powerful opening poem Breath. She asks, “Who’s to say this life isn’t the eternal life?” then speaks of “that instant that is neither/ in nor out, when you do not breathe/ but rest, at the point of turnaround.” That moment, “infinitesimal yet loaded, densely/ particulate, containing every thought/ you’ve ever had,” is the moment she’s looking for — to examine, to reveal.
So her poems find her walking the river’s edge, the city’s edge, trails through the woods to a cabin, or away from one: “I am the rain’s instrument,// and it’s driving me/ home, which is, I believe,// neither there/ nor here.”
In the sometimes humorous Jackknife series she writes of growing up a tomboy, working hard at boy things such as pitching sidearm and playing football, “apprenticed to the boy/ I want to be.” Harbour continues this “neither there/ nor here” stance with the closing lines, “Head bowed for grace/ I am the shy daughter// and the son, wind-burnt and radiant/ in disguise.”
Philips works hard in these poems, “paddling hard” in Stormy Weather, “feet forc[ing] the earth to move” in Reprise, performing a difficult “feat of memory” in To Keats, practicing to be a boy in the Jackknife poems, all part of getting “up in the morning,” going to her desk and trying “again to earn my passage.” Philips comes from working stock and isn’t afraid of working hard to see into that space between breaths, then writing about it.
In Belief, a poem about death, she writes of this work: “If I can find a way,/ if I can winnow out a word/ that will let you in/ … I can wait./ I have some time,” and in the magnificent long poem Fatherhood, writes about a supreme kind of work, the act of giving birth. Here the father-to-be, dazed with fatigue and fear, watches “the two midwives cajoling her/ as they work, manipulating the small/ pump like a hand-held/ lung, inspiring her.”
Philips, as in Prelude, works hard at finding the “middle body, middle distance,” so eventually her hand can crawl “slowly/ down the page.” She rides the “border/ between cold and colder, disorder/ and disorder,” poises “on the river’s vanishing/ edge,” and, as we see in these intensely personal, deeply felt poems of inquiry, she “balances, arms flung wide.” These are poems of a fierce engagement with seeking that neither/nor breath of balance in life.
Domanski, if the evidence of his eighth collection of poems is anything to go by, also spends much time engaged with nature, walking through it, sitting still and watching it, and letting it find its place within him amidst his copious reading of the world’s great philosophical and religious texts.
He, like Philips, also seeks the hinge between one world or one state and another, but most often that point of balance is between the living and the dead. “[O]ur grave is in our handshake,” he writes in A Petition to Clouds, and “our hearts [are] perpetually beating against the end of things.
So his poems, many of them lengthy meditations, mull over that great question of the end of things and what’s beyond. He leans on the Book of Revelations, Li Ho, Meister Eckhart, the I Ching, the koans of Master Ekai, among many others, to help him contemplate the busyness of life beneath his feet and the grief he struggles with at certain of its loss. In Walking Down to Acheron he says, “it’s that third dove the soul is always seeking/ some part of us always looking for what can’t be seen/ what won’t be revealed.”
So how do we sustain ourselves through that longing for what we can’t see and are never sure we’ve arrived at? In A Trace of Finches he says “there’s this bit of faith floating out there/ somewhere above the valley floor a wild belief/ that the earth will sustain us.” He later writes, “we’re summoned and held by what we never see/ according to the teachings of the Masters/ all our kingdoms lie skin deep on the ground/ erased by our eyelids closing in prayer/ or by any whisper from any promised land,” in the long poem In the Dream of the Yellow Birches.
As the child in Leviathan, though, he wants the secret of how his fishing forbears came ashore with a boat full of dead fish and “released those shadows/ … so they could be/ apart from Death and Death’s flesh.”
How do we assume life and its many deaths? This is the question, posed innumerably, that Domanski wrestles with in his dense and packed poems. Sometimes his metaphors — and there are many — are so idiosyncratic they cause puzzlement or laughter, as in the delightful “the gods keep busy in their corners/ knitting chromosomes to disengagements” or the sky’s blue “comes to shim/ the space between the stone’s brood and the ant’s temper.” Others are so apt as to make one cry out in wonder: the hummingbird is “like a rose that understood flight” while “the moon is rising cabbaging light from the weeds.”
Finally, there is only that bit of faith of which he spoke, because “there’s so little we comprehend yet we keep coming back/ to the world.” It’s all we have, so, as these poets do, we walk around in it trying to see what’s there, and beyond.
Robertson is a Saskatoon freelance writer, poet and educator.