Poetry & Essay Reviews
Omens in the Year of the Ox
by Steven Price,
London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2012
103 pages, $19.00 pp.
Steven Price’s first book of poetry, Anatomy of Keys, won the Gerald Lampert Award, and with his second collection, Omens in the Year of the Ox, Price continues his tough language contortions and densely rich view of the world.
This volume begins with a five-page poem called “The Crossing,” a powerful consideration of moving through time. In it, Price mentions Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it’s evident that Hopkins has been a huge influence on Price. It’s not Hopkins’ sprung rhythm but his concept of inscape and his molding of words that Price has benefited from and which he uses to great effect. Price refers to Hopkins’ metre as “marking long great gulps of air,” but his own metre is much more fluid, as befits a poet somewhat obsessed with water imagery. This wonderful poem begins with the speaker on a boat: “So. At the end of the middle of your life / you wake, rain-shivering, to a white railing / in a shriven dusk.” And the poem moves through images of creativity (Hopkins, Gaudí) and time and death.
The book then has three sections, with some patterns of poems. Several poems called “Chorus” play their titular role and recapitulate the predominate imagery: “I drove through furred fields veiled in rain / when road struck sea struck sky.” A handful of poems are curses by various people: a midwife, a gardener, the blind. The only poems that strike an odd note are “Three Blues,” which use the vernacular of the Blues and which jar considerably with the diction of the rest of the collection, and “Dr Johnson’s Table Talk,” which seems gimmicky.
Overall, Price uses firm language and frequent ugliness to question reality and what it means to be alive. In “Bull Kelp,” for example, Price describes the algae in fresh ways that anyone familiar with kelp will immediately recognize as disturbing and valid: “long, long, gleeched and ungulous / until it, this, stewed placenta, this puddled thing / poked with a stick or walked unwondering past / splits its slippery gutline, peels apart in rot– / and a knot of larvae boils in that dark and does not clot.” Whew.
While the imagery has a certain consistency, the topics are wide-ranging. Price includes poems about Icarus (from his point of view), Medea, Odysseus, arbutus trees, a geode, boys, pears, a raccoon, and music. And that’s hardly a complete list. My favourite poem is one of the most positive: “Mediterranean Light,” in which the speaker and his pregnant wife travel through Spain. This poem includes passages of prose poetry and in one, the speaker says, “The world hurtles through space at speeds nearly unimaginable, yet our lives can remain motionless for years. When the doctor ran the cool sonogram over your belly we heard the fast hard footsteps of a second heart. That was the sound of our own new selves running toward us.” So beautiful. (Price is married to Esi Edugyan, and they have a baby).
In Omens in the Year of the Ox, Price manages an alluring feat: he combines many forms with various topics while having an overall consistency of purpose. This book is far-reaching in its philosophical inquiries and absolutely awe-inspiring in its imagery.