BC Local News Rev - Sumacs Red Arms
BC Local News
Reviewed by: George Sipos
One is always apprehensive about books written by doctors. Or for that matter, books written by soldiers, humanitarian workers, Holocaust survivors and others who have experienced the harsh edge of human life firsthand. It's not that we want to spare ourselves knowledge of what it's like to confront mortality, illness, poverty or the other realities of lives lived in extremis, but rather that writers who do have experience of such things have such a huge advantage over the rest of us that reading their work can feel overwhelmingly humbling. One can also sometimes feel in the presence of a kind of unfair one-upmanship: 'I have watched a child die of AIDS while you spent your time tying out the pea vines.'
Mercifully, one feels none of this in Karen Shklanka's recently published collection of poems, Sumac's Red Arms. Although Shklanka is indeed a doctor who has seen many years service in emergency wards and remote northern communities, and although the volume does contain a number of poems that arise from this experience, the book is overwhelmingly generous rather than superior toward the reader's 'Look at this', the poems say. 'Isn't being human amazing?' rather than: 'Aren't you lacking for not having lived what I have?' The same is true of the many poems in the book about travel to exotic places - Berlin, Mexico, the Texas seaside, James Bay. It is the writer's being there rather than the reader's not having been there that animates the reading experience.
The other thing that needs to be said about this book is that its generosity toward the reader is apparent not just in subject matter. The language of the poems itself is driven always by a need for accuracy and emotional and descriptive precision, not by ostentation. Look for example at the way a poem about morning on the Gulf of Mexico, where birds wade or fly or feed, each seen as only most obliquely correlative to the viewer's thoughts, ends: The day is a message in a blue bottle: from the rocks nearby, an oyster breathes the sea. What matters here is not the anthropomorphism that sees the oysters breathing, but the perfect aptness of the image, the way it, as the last line of the poem, feels so much itself like a release (or like an intake) of breath. Or look at the end of another poem in which a woman has fallen in love with a man in Paris. After the familiarity we recognize, when 'all moments/ accordion into this one/ where we touch a stranger's/ fingers, how our steps echo/ in the street,' there is the inescapable parting described like this: a sudden kiss before the inevitable commutation, the door closing and the gleaming train. The genius of these lines is not just the choice of the word 'commutation,' with the enormous weight of uncertainty it carries about the nature and duration of separation, but the restraint of the final line. Partly it's a matter of the emotional joy and pathos packed into the image of the gleaming train, but more importantly the deliberate refusal to self-dramatize in the choice of 'and' where a lesser writer would have said 'on.' It is in these specific acts of perfection, the deployment of a meticulous eye and ear and care about language, that this book shines.
Sumac's Red Arms is a first collection of poems but it is clear throughout that many years of thought and care and precise observation have gone into its making. It is as fine a debut as anyone could wish for. We look forward, not with apprehension, but with eagerness for more. Sumac's Red Arms is published by Coteau Books and sells for $16.95.
-George Sipos is a poet whose first book, Anything But the Moon, was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Prize. His second collection will be published in spring 2010.