Montreal Review of Books - The Tongues of Earth

Reviewed by: Bert Almon

Mark Abley’s The Tongues of Earth is a rich sampling of his three earlier books with some new poems. Abley is best known for his excellent non-fiction, but he also understands the craft of poetry, particularly the use of traditional forms. Most of his poems are written in stanzas, usually rhymed ones. He writes on many subjects, but his imagination is most engaged with extinctions, both biological (like the Imperial Woodpecker, the Labrador Duck, and the Garefowl) and linguistic. The concern with loss means that his tone is often elegiac, although he has written with wincing humour about the experience of a vasectomy: “The wisecrack surgeon sends me home in stitches. / Codeine is dynamite with Scotch and nachos.”

 Abley is the author of the non-fiction Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, and, not surprisingly, some of the best poems in The Tongues of Earth evoke the human richness that vanishes with a language. K’tunaxa, an endangered language formerly known as Kootenai, has a term for “starving / though having a fish trap,” which encapsulates a knowledge of life in a single word. The remarkable “Deep Gold,” based on Abley’s edition of the writings of Samuel Palmer, a visionary artist, commemorates another kind of loss, the sad career of a brilliant creator whose work did not succeed in his own lifetime.

 He glimpsed the radiance of Heaven but the deprivations of earthly life destroyed his vision. Abley’s work has substance, and the substance has form. This is a book to read, and read again.

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