Review of The Rapids
From Deborah C. Bowen, Redeemer University College , Journal of Canadian Poetry - The Poetry Review, Volume 29, 2012

The Rapids by Susan Gillis

Jan Conn, Edge Effects.  London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2012. Paper. Pp. 96. $19.00.

Susan Gillis, The Rapids.  London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2012. Paper. Pp. 104. $19.00.

Nora Gould, I see my love more clearly from a distance. London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2012. Paper. Pp. 112. $19.00.

These three new volumes from Brick Books have overlapping interests.  Two of them are by women with a background in the biological sciences.  Two of the poets belong to the same collaborative writing group.  All three books describe spirit-altering interactions with the physical environment.  And all three are tough, in the sense of having backbone and guts, as well as in the sense of expecting readerly attention to what is difficult.

Susan Gillis is a member of the same collaborative writing group as Jan Conn (Yoko’s Dogs, a four-person renga group with Mary di Michele and Jane Munro), but the tone and sensibility of her collection, The Rapids, are significantly different from Conn’s.  Gillis too is pulled by the surreal: “Knot,” for instance, is the strangest and most commanding poem I’ve read about the moon since Don McKay in Another Gravity.  But in her poems surreality is only just beyond the daily, and for that very reason packs a visceral punch—consider these lines from “On the Station Platform,” about waiting for a train on a freezing cold night:

It used to be thought the liver was the seat of our passions.
If so, there’s a crescent-shaped scar in mine
where the moon hacked its way through my body
to open a frozen river.

Or “Entry,” where the narrator uses a key to a house but the light crossing the river doesn’t need one:

When I move through the rooms it brushes me
and I shimmer a little.
It’s like a voice, or the organs of the body
Whatever I touch—the back of a chair, a hibiscus leaf—
incarnates into something I don’t yet know.
When I say the rooms are empty, I don’t mean empty of
things.

The mystical plays across the surface here, like the light.

Gillis’s poems constantly name the fluid relationship between the forces of the human world and the natural world. “Into the Storm” describes the end of a marriage, where the narrator finally “wanted the ripped-up roof of sky, / peat and stone for a bed. // Bark scraps and needles in the path. // To marry the river, / sprung, and flooding seaward.”  In “Animal,” she imagines  “[lying] down next to a young puma / as if on a the lip of a mountain—/ o let’s be frank, as if in the eye of some force.”  When the puma gets up, “He gathers himself into himself, rippling, / That still you can feel the air’s skin—/ then a gust, and the odour of lilies where his body has been.”  In “View with Umbrellas,” it’s the season and the weather that have transfiguring power:

When did it happen, the day’s light leaning
so low nothing has dimensions anymore?

An umbrella blown inside out “revealing / its frail frame: echoes how “brittle trees / claw the sky.”  And for people,

To venture out—for milk,
Eggs, fruits-and-veg—means thinning to a smudge,
Slipping smoke-like underneath the door.

But the tour-de-force of the book is the final section, previously published as a chapbook by Gaspereau Press, “Twenty-two Views of the Lachine Rapids.”  Here Gillis gives the reader a visceral picture of a spring storm (“then the river reared up like a dragon, / scales flapping; the sun, smoke, / the far faint islands, all / collapsed in the froth of its lashing”), the river in spring (“The eddies gleam like rubbed shell”) and in mid-winter (“Even frozen they are impassable, dragon / rapids, the river caught in its own thrashing”), the physicality of “men in shiny hipwaders: tagging a pike (“Slick shuddering, / it torques; he teeters—“) and of “Autumn Migration,” in a little poem shaped like a flying duck.  But views can be deceptive: in “View with Mourning Couple,” the whole premise is the insecurity of the view, even “on a perfectly ordinary late spring day.” Is that “A heron on shore, or a rusty buggy”?  Is this “A rock in the grass, or a small creature curled in torment”?  In the second half of the poem, it is suddenly no longer “families out for walks” that we meet, but a man and a woman “pushing a coffin, a coroner’s photo fixed to the top: a young man lying in a twisted repose, darkness at the gunshot wound.”  A twenty-third view, perhaps.

And all the time it is how the river weaves in and out of the human situation that compels.  In “Summer Rain,” for instance,

Taking the measure of loss
is like trying to count rocks in the river:
you know they are there
because you see them, and you feel
if you hold still long enough
you could register each one, but the current
keeps breaking the pattern and you lose
count you can’t tell where.

In “View at Dusk,” the final poem of the book (and the second with this title), the changing river is the one constant in a world where the present is always unstable:

Except for the river, everything races dusk
to the point beyond the bridge
where the sun, shrunk to a speck, funnels
into itself, siphoning us of form,

the western sky agleam, flocked
with shapes of what we were
and what we will become.

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