… Glen Sorestad’s What We Miss is … more accessible to a non-academic readership. Its poems are less abstract, more narrative. There are also moments of subtle poetic artistry in What We Miss: meaningful rhymes (as with the assonance in “The Road to Heaven” and consonance in “Winter Barn”), an occasional iambic rhythm that befits the speaker’s constant walking, and vivid images that help to set the narratives, as in “Morning Declaration”: “Trees shake their leaves / like pompom quotation marks.” I especially like the poems “Now That I’m Up” and “There Was a Time,” which reflect on younger days with memorable difficulty and matter-of-factness. Unfortunately, some poems seem like prosaic exercises in describing bygone things for the purpose of cultural memory, as in “The Ice House.” Sorestad reminds me of Raymond Souster in those nostalgic moments. When poems such as “A Teen’s First Car” and “Buggywashers” end with platitudes, the sentimentality is too easy.
In June, 2010, Glen Sorestad was awarded the Order of Canada for a lifetime of achievement in poetry. Sorestad was co-founder of Thistledown Press and the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, in addition to publishing over a dozen poetry collections. He is so integral to the Saskatchewan writers’ scene that it’s difficult to remember he started life in Vancouver. He has read his poetry throughout the world and has received many honours.
Sorestad is an acquisitor. In a “12 or 20 questions” interview with rob mclennan dated February 25, 2008, in responding to a question about his influences, Sorestad answered: “. . . music and art have always informed my work, quite regularly and at various stages of my writing life. However, the natural world has been a constant in my writing life from my first book to my most recent. If there is one dominant shaping influence for my life’s work, then the natural world would be it. I may have written more bird poems than Don McKay or Allan Safarik.”
What We Miss opens with a couple of those bird poems. The second one, “After Five Days of Wind,” begins with the red-winged blackbird emerging from spring. These lines are from the second and final stanza:
beneath an azure dazzle where,
red epaulets aglint it bursts
its fierce, flutey melody,
as happy now to be freed from
frigid north winds as we. (11)
There are several things to consider in this brief excerpt, the first being Sorestad’s attention to sound. His use of alliteration is magnificent. The phrase “azure dazzle,” which might have been sounded corny, founded as it is on the cliché expression “razzle dazzle,” describes perfectly the appearance of sky through trembling aspen leaves. How often do you see alliteration on the letter “z”? Consider as well the use of “f,” the line break severing “freed from” and “frigid” – a recognition that it would have been too much to have all three on the same line, whereas the line break provides just enough of a, well, break to set things right. But why the use of the antique, worn-out poetic word “aglint”; why the use of such convoluted syntax? This line cannot be salvaged – too many questions, not enough answers. It’s as if Sorestad was so intent on working the alliteration that he forgot to examine and edit the line.
Birds serve as a backdrop for the elaborate metaphor of “Morning Declaration.” Sorestad doesn’t waste time — nor should he in such a short poem — in establishing that metaphor, doing so in the first stanza:
This morning the northwest wind blusters
a declarative sentence, replete with clausal
gusts, punctuated with rainy exclamations. (18)
He uses this metaphor to set up an elaborate joke reminiscent of mad dogs and Englishmen, sans the dogs, with the poem concluding as follows: My partner and I persist in our fitness imperative, lean, two slashes in rain, follow our syntactical route home. (18)
Undoubtedly, the structure of this poem owes much to John Donne and the metaphysical poets in the revival of the conceit, something we should see more of, although current taste seems to rebel often against even the slightest whiff of metaphor, relying instead upon the more subtle device of using syntax rather than words to imply something other. Another bird poem, “November Heron,” enables Sorestad to create another poetic joke, this time using the just-mentioned subtlety of syntax in order to do so. The poem concerns a great blue heron that finds itself out of place in a prairie autumn quickly moving towards winter. It should have flown south by that time and is in imminent danger of death from exposure. Humans do not intrude onto this scene until the final stanza, where they do so almost as an afterthought:
Its kin, long flown to warmer waters,
are receding memories of what once was.
Silent snow falls on the heron, falls on us. (25)
Notice the control of words, of sound, the subtlety of the consonants. The “r” sound dominates this stanza but seldom in starting position. Perhaps this sound, contrasted as it is with the “w” sounds in the first and second lines, along with the “s”s of the third line that create the beauty of this stanza – and this poem. But the parallel construction with which the poem ends also creates the artistry, the sense of control this poem exudes.
As much as I admire Sorestad’s control of sound, it doesn’t quite work in the first part of the long, exceptionally well-constructed sentence that concludes the first stanza of “Late November”:
“Cold wind nips the nape of my neck / but when I arc my way past . . .” (29). To my ear, the alliteration on the “n” sound is overdone, as it repeats itself another fourteen times within that sentence.
Sorestad is a master poet. Of this, there is no doubt. His poetry considers the quotidian. He has no time for philosophizing. To him, life is meant to be lived, something he has certainly done during his seventy-plus years. This book is an indication that he has found an answer that satisfies both him and us. — John Herbert Cunningham
John Herbert Cunningham is a Winnipeg writer. He reviews poetry in Canada for The Malahat Review, Arc, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead and The Danforth Review, in the U.S. for Quarterly Conversations, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Big Bridge and Galatea Revisits, and in Australia for Jacket.
Glen Sorestad’s What We Miss is a truly inspired book of poems. These poems are deceptively simple, they return us to the basic experience of being a poet and writing poetry. This experience lies in the ability to see in the quotidian, the everyday, that which is marvelous and meaningful. In the first section, “Moving Towards the Light,” we read poems of everyday experiences, of going for daily walks and recording what is significant on these walks: it is seeing the first robin in spring; the presence of a red-winged blackbird; the warmth of the sun on one’s face; rain; geese; an old man and his dog; the sun coming through some clouds; a woman walking two dogs; a decapitated field mouse… All poets have had this experience: we place importance on observations that other people either ignore or aren’t aware of or think are too trivial to comment on. The poet gives these experiences significance and importance, he gives people a different way to perceive reality. As well, informing Sorestad’s poems is the recognition of our mortality. We know that when he writes of “walking towards the light” it is not only a kind of awakening, but it is also the light that lies beyond death. “Towards the Long Night,” the last poem in this section of What We Miss, finds us in November, the decline to winter has begun, and we note “The sharp sting of wind in our faces, /we bear reluctant light through the park.”
Sorestad’s love of language began when he was a child; he writes of this experience in “The Language of Horse”:
It was words like halter and hames, bits and bridle, collar and reins, words his uncle threw at him as if they were self-evident— this language so foreign to him. It was a childhood epiphany: each new landscape he encountered from that point on would come with its own language, its own lexicon to be snapped or buckled into place, for him to become a part of and in turn for it to become a part of him.
Glen Sorestad is a poet who celebrates his early life, his family, moving between the city and the country, but it is in the country where he seems happiest, a happiness of being in a loving family and in close contact with nature. For instance, “Snow Tunnels” and “Christmas Oranges” are both poems of a happy childhood and of innocence. His poem, “Map of Canada,” returns us to an earlier time in Canadian history, he writes of a large map of the country on the classroom wall, but this map had a different quality to it, it also advertised the products of a chocolate company, and now, many years later, the names of different chocolate bars are forever associated to places in Canada, at least in Glen Sorestad’s consciousness! The final poem in the book, “Winter Walk,” has at least two layers of meaning; it is winter, but this is also a walk in the cemetery, and Sorestad is one of several pall bearers of a child’s coffin. This is a very moving poem, it reminds us of life’s transience and the fragility of human life. He writes movingly, At last they set their box down at the site, consigned the child to cold and dimming light.
The beauty of Glen Sorestad’s poetry lies, in part, in finely crafted epiphanous perceptions of nature, a love for family, and memories of the past; in these two books we see things through his eyes and know something of the way poets perceive reality.
[Glen] Sorestad, in What We Miss, wants to take a moment to do what Irving Layton once said poets do, which is to valorize the moment, to make special in a poem and for posterity what the poet sees and wishes to point out. If, as Wallace Stevens once stated, "poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush" (thanks to the Sask. Writers Guild for this timely quotation), then the poems in Sorestad's new collection want to hold onto that pheasant and show it around.
He starts with his morning walk and takes us through the seasons, from the "Spring comes here/ whenever it damn well wants," of Spring in Saskatchewan, to the "tardy sun/ dragging its school-bound feet" of November in Towards the Long Night. In the first section of his collection Sorestad recognizes himself as really quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things, noting, in Spring Dance, that "I am of no consequence here," and so he takes pleasure in small things, the sight of The Old Man and His Dog, to quote another title, and the Yellow-shafted Flicker in the title poem that the poet almost missed.
Sorestad confronts his aging body in Some Mornings, then turns to other signs of mortality in Small Dog on Kansas Road, Stopping at Hirsch Cemetery, Wordless, and The House We Lived in for Thirty-two Years, ending the last poem in silence over the "unrecoverable and unseen."
In the book's last section, There Was a Time, Sorestad indulges himself in a little nostalgia, revisiting the farm of his youth and Belgian draft horses, the old Coleman lantern, snowbanks for tunneling, Christmas oranges, and that icon of our old schoolrooms, the Neilson chocolate bar map of Canada. The opening of Winter Barn sets an appropriate tone for this sentimental journey: "To step from frigid night into/ the thick warmth of animal air/ was to step over a threshold/ into a world where your intrusion/ was always tolerated."
Far from feeling he is "of no consequence here," as he was watching the natural world in the book's early poems, here in the warm glow of memory, Sorestad dwells in the good of his past, even the part where he made the "long climb to that musty/ hayloft of Lutheran Confirmation," bravely closing his collection with a death, one remembered from 60 years ago when he was a 12-year-old pallbearer surprised by the coffin's weight. — Bill Robertson