Phosphorus Reviews

prairie journal, august 20, 2016

The theme of a highly reactive element is played out, ignites in air, stored under water. Atomic number 15 forms the principal material in bones. Then it reveals itself in multiple forms. One is known as alpha, the other beta, Greek letters. The word "phosphorous" means "bearer of light".

Part One "Those Who Are Gone But Don't Go" pertains to the dead or missing. The zoo requires defence but humans are the last creations of the gods. The wolves can be heard in Siberia. German nationals from Russia were resettled in Siberia. Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill meet in Yalta. A concentration camp records horrific experiments. Bones reappear from the earth. Atrocities in East Prussia for a generation, murderers, Fall 1944. Babies abandoned. Suicide. Captives eventually released due to age. The Civilian Storm represented all men aged thirteen to sixty-five. The SS. Therefore, the heart freezes over. Bachelor Brothers never came home. A disturbance of the heart. Not only memories are buried in the garden. The stories burn like phosphorous.

In "Small Atrocities" arises in Oldman River, the Old Country emerges in the New. What is being translated is the culture, not only the language, Canada consists of "its empty spaces". Fairy tales have tragic endings. True lives harbour secrets. Grain elevators and the town cemetery. Words hurt. ("DP, DP")

"The Wish Book" is a longish poem numbered sequentially in eighteen parts. The narrative begins with a child's eye view of a Sears catalogue, a familiarity with the prairie. The time is 1950 when a new immigrant arrives. Traditional foods are plentiful. The locations are Lethbridge, Fort McLeod, Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. What prompts the poem is an old homestead which endures. The "weird kid" is a DP (Displaced Person) who learns from family, community, and school. The indentation is associated with descriptions of nature, indigenous plants, which reminded me of Stegner's Wolf Willow or Willa Cather's O Pioneer. The Blackfoot appear dutifully in costume in a parade. Big Chief Mountain and native mythology are inherently or implicitly compared with The Lone Ranger on radio and True Romance

"Ground Truth" explores snow, ocean and land appear the same. Rock welcome markers, separation (spatial and emotional). Avalanche personified as avenging dragons. Amish women stitch "Tree of Life", a healing circle. "Breathing is an act of grace". Blame results in forgiveness. A tableau of lovers, silent. An island with an upper and lower outlook. ("Nairn Falls") Medical dissection in anatomy class ("Finding Waldo") A prose poem celebrates Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. ("Colours of a Man")

"In the Second Circle" Chagall's burial place, tromp de l'oeil (a function of the poem), the new consumption converses with the hideous past. ("Other People") a stopped heart ("Fog"), death as a diagnosis in the O.R. ("Dropping Ourselves"). She was murdered, "My God, she was beautiful". Coyotes, Oregon Grape, an orchard in a city. ("Thin Lives") Of a woman the poet revels/reveals:

Or, finally,

simply, gratefully,

speaking in metaphor,

phrases fanning out,

a gossamer humming.

A gentleman widower hears his long-dead wife despite his own vow of silence. ("The Hiss of Taffeta") "Bonzai" is a compressed poem, much like the miniature plant from which the title was taken. Grief pervades, while flight appears to be a temporary escape, a simulation of life for the deadened. 

"Where Salt and Sweet Water Meet" mother and daughter cling together. Faith saves a man but God must answer for much. ("If Gods Watched") Again "Carnaoe" refers to columns holding up chambers of the heart. Secrets of lovers but observed, no longer personally experienced. ("Lovers") "Baobab Trees" is similar to "Bonzai". Death personified, as in a medieval mystery play. ("If Death Called") Empty spaces ("Porches") like a constellation ("Equivalent Spaces") Sarah Vaughn and slow jazz. Dinner at the German Cultural Club ("Almost Eighty-eight") Her body "tallow skin", her dying "by the wick burning down". Light is extinguished in her eyes, "My thin words". Darkness comes ("Light Descends") pondering drowning ("Planks of Water") the metaphysical "Time is a hunger" ("The Branch That Holds Us"). In veritas vinous. ("Cognac") A dry prairie sea ironically or paradoxically cannot be reconciled with a sheet camp in Berlin.

"Addendum" closes out the collection with a list of deaths in 1945 and persons missing in action. In all, a truly remarkable collection, an exploration of the open heart, whether buried after the Second World War or during an anatomy class for the O.R.

Garnett won the 2004 Joyce Dunn Memorial Award for Poetry and was runner up for both the Mandy Poetry Contest and the Ontario Poetry Society's Writes of Passage Competition. 

— Anne Burke