POETRY | Debut collections sparkle, finds Barbara Carey
Anatomy of Keys by Steven Price
Brick Books, 142 pages, $18
Out to Dry in Cape Breton by Anita Lahey
Signal Editions, 80 pages, $16
A robustly lyrical poem-biography of a renowned escape artist and the literary equivalent of a highland reel: These debut collections showcase two bright talents kicking up their heels in the sandbox of language.
There’s fancy semantic footwork galore in Anatomy of Keys, in which Victoria poet Steven Price traces the life of Houdini. But the book is not simply a biography of the master “escapologist.” Price extends the metaphorical (and metaphysical) possibilities of the tools of his subject’s trade to include his own struggles as a writer (language is “his adopted flesh of chains”) and repeats the central motif of restraint/freedom in various ways (“Love too felt locked / at times like a trunk …”) Then there’s death, the ultimate in escape-proof cages. As Price puts it at one point, “We drown in no element but time.”
Readers may at times feel submerged in a wave of words, too, for Price is never content with one adjective when he’s got several available. Nevertheless, his verbosity is vigorous, carried along by strong, insistent rhythms. Take the following passage, which echoes its subject’s halting, heavy gait: “Father’s cane crunkled and heaved his laboured / stride of dust, turf, sod, dust, earthily insistent.”
One minor gripe: Price plays somewhat loose with his subject’s order (quoted in a long list of epigraphs) to “Make it tight,” especially in the section “The Circus at the End of the World.” It’s as if he couldn’t resist incorporating details of his background research and discoursing at length on themes such as the nature of illusion. But the last thing a book of almost 140 pages needs is padding – even when it’s as dazzling as Anatomy of Keys.
Ottawa writer and editor (of Arc Poetry Magazine) Anita Lahey is no slouch either. The poems in Out to Dry in Cape Breton quickstep along in snappy, rhythmic lines that display plenty of striking images and a sly sense of humour.
Who would have thought that clotheslines could inspire an entertaining poem sequence about the inner lives of various characters? In crisp, descriptive phrases, Lahey turns details of ordinary domesticity – “Everyday rags and wraps,” as she puts it – into vivid tableaux.
In one poem, laundry flapping on the line becomes a stand-in for romantic entanglements. It opens with “An airy kiss, our fabrics come / alive,” and ends “We need an honest / soaking, then the pegs … – you and I wrestling with all that // ripens and blows between our seams.”
The final set of poems, about visiting Cape Breton to renew acquaintance with relatives and to play tourist, offers plenty of memorable snapshots, coloured by a warm touch of humour. (In one poem, she writes of “water, cold and deep as prehistoric / joy. A Tim Horton’s every hundred feet.”)
Lahey occasionally goes overboard in her inventive phrasing – for instance, “maple biceps / under bags of rain” seems forced as an image of tree branches. But even this is the sign of a poet pushing herself to come up with fresh imagery. For the most part, she succeeds. Out to Dry in Cape Breton is a real footstomper, finely crafted and full of verve.
Toronto’s Barbara Carey appears monthly.