Afloat by John Reibetanz, Brick Books, 88 pages, $20
The cosmopolitan, lyrical meditations in Afloat, John Reibetanz’s eighth collection, are reminders that humankind also has a capacity for beauty — though the Toronto poet and professor of English at Victoria College is no naïve sentimentalist. He ponders humanity’s folly, notably in the form of China’s Three Gorges Dam (a massive hydroelectric project on the Yangtze River that has displaced more than a million people, flooded archeological sites and caused environmental damage) and the ravages of the Second World War.
Still, Reibetanz tries to look on the hopeful side. “Reversal” is inspired by two photos (by the renowned Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky) of a Chinese town levelled to make way for the dam. He writes of a vine that “thrust its tap root through demolition’s/grey armour” and “finds/lifelines.” Elsewhere, rain is “the sky’s gift of spirit”; even tears are seen as pain that “puts on a coat of warm water/and runs down your cheek.”
Water is a recurring motif, its properties evoked explicitly in imagery (birdsong is “silk-watered sound,” a frilled hem is described as “bubbles of gauze”) and implicitly in the fluidity of Reibetanz’s lines and in the buoyancy of his vision.
In one poem, he describes an ancient Chinese scroll painting in which “each thin instant of rain” is “clad only in the brush stroke/from a single bristle.” That vividness and precision are also hallmarks of Afloat.
Toronto writer Barbara Carey is the Star’s poetry columnist.