I’m so pleased that this collection of poetry was brought to my attention both by the publisher, Harbour Publishing, and the Publishing Triangle, who shortlisted it for this year’s Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry. Although I do mostly focus my attention on fiction, I really need and appreciate a good dose of poetry every so often. I feel like I’ve said something similar the last few times I’ve read and reviewed a book of poetry (Leah Horlick’s Riot Lung and Amber Dawn’s Poetry Saved My Life made me feel this way as well) so maybe this time I’ll finally take my own advice and make poetry more of a priority on my reading list. I would welcome some suggestions! I actually ended up reading Vancouver poet Rachel Rose’s Song & Spectacle at a really emotionally demanding time and the poems in it both comforted and challenged me. So, Rachel Rose, thank you.
One of the reasons I really loved Song & Spectacle is that it’s smart and accessible. Too often I find the poetry that I try to read is either simply terrible or pretentious and elitist. Rose’s book, I felt, was neither. For example, she manages to write beautifully about love and the heart without stooping to sentimentality. How? Like this:
What We Heard About the Heart
We heard you like red wine,
dark chocolate, prefer iambic
pentameter to free verse. Our
specialists study your ailments: we call them
cardiologists, poets. We give your aches
the names of movie stars: Angina, Arrhythmia, Tamponade
We hear you won’t go on forever,
and that gives us pause.
Each of your two and a half billion beats
shapes our hours. Our tickers stutter
like firecrackers, pressed against the breasts
of lovers. In dance clubs, we hear your be-bop
with the bass thrum in our ears. Tough muscle:
we put our hands on you to swear the whole truth
and nothing but. We give you
a day of candies and roses,
frilled boxes, pink and labial. We vow to stay true.
Don’t be still, my heart. Once,
before memory, you shocked us to life,
began the mystery. No one knows how. Sweet
heart: we ask for a generous span of beats.
We pray when you stop, you stop
in our sleep.
In addition to matters of the (literal and figurative) heart, Rose tackles lesbian motherhood, both from the perspective of the birth and non-birth mother. The first in a series of poems called “Maternal Sapphics,” dedicated to her partner carrying and giving birth to their child, tells us: “I loved her body through the upheaval / of pregnancy. Loved her hot breasts / and the way she rose like fine wheat bread.” I loved hearing about the complexities of having children as a lesbian, and what seemed particular to that experience: the difficulties of explaining to your son that he’s “double-mothered,” the non-biological mother’s conflict of feeling like “the unwanted / unpaid babysitter, the rejected mother.” The poem “Lullaby,” which follows the “Maternal Sapphics” poems, is a beautiful testament to the changing relationship with death that a mother experiences after having a child: “If you must die / let me die first. / This is my prayer.”
In Song & Spectacle you can also find poems about such diverse topics as nature, mythology, protests, abortion, national stereotypes, Buddhist spirituality, loss, illness, death, and, of course, poetry itself. One of my favourite poems about poetry was “Recipe for a Poem,” which starts with the instruction “Take something anyone can use: / how to set a broken bone … or how to live with someone a long time / without becoming lonely.” It ends with this:
If everything catches fire, beat flames with a fresh
manuscript. Douse in wine. Throw plates.
Guests should preferably be alive,
be able to talk a thin white line,
should remove their damp pairs of irony in the foyer,
drape their great woolen grief on the couch.
Let them come to the table with their mouths full of water,
onions in their pockets, hearts aching with the tongues
they knew by heart before they were born. Let them come.
Throughout the collection, Rose displays a remarkably effortless-seeming playfulness; while she is often dealing with solemn topics, she cannot resist the temptation for some fun with words at the same time. Indeed, she shouldn’t. I really appreciated this delicate balance of tone, at once playful yet meaningful. She also often re-invents old tricks that you might be familiar with from the kinds of old poetry you read in high school English, like personification of the natural elements. In one brilliant poem called “Rain Song,” the rain speaks:
Give me time, and I’ll erode you,
beat you softly with ten thousand fingers
until you surrender. Every day, I condense,
I bring wrath upon the peach blossoms, I monsoon
your villages, drown your cattle. I am the uninvited guest
at your shotgun wedding, I drench your white veil
tendril your upswept hair, I wash salt from the beach
become the river. I am the rain, small tongues
fluted like snakes’, I am the sound of peace
on flowering dogwood, spores
bursting underground, thrusting gold fingers
to meet my kisses, slick and silver. I am the snail’s
companion, trail of drops illuminating the spider’s web.
I am fresh tears of the gods
when they see what they have wrought.
It seems fitting that I am writing this while listening to the rain beat down outside my bedroom window (Rose is based in Vancouver, after all, as am I). As I said earlier, I found this collection to be both comforting and challenging; I think this is because these poems espouse a profound knowledge of both the pain and beauty in the world, and when you’re really immersed in either of those extremes, it’s excruciating to be reminded of the other side. Song & Spectacle made me feel oddly similar to how the contemplation of the universe’s infinity is described in one poem: “We heard it was infinite, beyond / the beyond of the song of songs / And we tried to picture it, but it hurt … We tried to console ourselves … / pressed our eyes with fists and made gold blots ringed in violet.”
Of course, Song & Spectacle is much more than a consolation; it’s a meditation on the impossibility of the simultaneous existence of both the infinite and the finite, and sorrow and joy, in this lovable but volatile world.