Poetry, Pop Culture, Art and History Reviews
George Elliott Clarke
by John Reibetanz
London, ON: Brick, 2013
87 pp. $20
The Family China
by Ann Shin
London, ON: Brick, 2013
74 pp. $20
In his eighth collection, Afloat, John Reibetanz, native New Yorker and now English professor at the University of Toronto, ranges across landscapes and seascapes, all transfigured by art and historical perception. Amy K. Epstein’s gorgeous, Chinese-styled cover art sets the tone, a landscape slowly washing into watercolour abstraction, as in impressionism. The poems offer similar transformations.
One particularly striking work is “Curious George Takes Flight, 12 June 1940,” in which the creators of the iconic children’s book, Hans and Margret Rey, are remembered, fleeing — by bicycle — the Nazi onslaught on France, the precious inkling of their book stowed in a basket. “George guides (the Reys) // from flaming cities through forests of pure animal / instinct …invulnerable / to occupation…// gives their hearts / the courage to redraft a yellow star of reproach // into wearable sun …the yellow hat of rescue…”
Such is the constant alchemy that Reibetanz offers. Here is “Corner Brook, Nfld”: “New-found, never-caught, / cod-slippery, the blood’s brook / leaps through the heart’s grip.”
Reibetanz is an American poet first. I hear notes of Muriel Rukeyser in the unscrolling imagination and unfurling descriptions. The intellectual propensity reminds me of Al Moritz, Reibetanz’s Americo-Canuck confrere.
Another strong poem is “The Monarch Butterfly Migration, 1943,” which juxtaposes the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, with the travel of millions of butterflies — “monarchs in silk robes” — from blazing, European cities — “the flame tornados that wrenched / trees from earth … human spirits // from the blackened chrysalids of incinerated / children…” “Why would they not // choose this metamorphosis of flame when cathedrals / were shattering… this soft floating stained glass / blazoned like tropical fruit …?” Reibetanz has won the Petra Kenney Poetry Competition and his poems, “The Vineyard” and “Displacement,” (in this volume) have won laurels too. The entire collection is a reward and a feast for all who love transfigurative, transformative poetry.
Ann Shin’s second verse collection, The Family China, traces life-journeys of migration and aging, from Korea to Canada. The several dozen poems fall into five suites, and most of the poems also have a sidelong “footnote,” to reflect upon the lyrical statement. Shin is evocative, exuberant even, about childhood: “We ran through the (new house’s) rooms like it was Christmas…, // our bodies / knitting in with this place that so wanted kids. / Trees sprouted apples, cherries dropped from heavy boughs. But there is constraint too, the facts of pain and death and loss, and the veiling of impression with scads of description.
So, a mother washes the walls of a house, presenting an image of controlled chaos, but more vivid is the daughter’s memory that, “I never caught a butterfly all the summers we lived there / never tried enough, afraid of crushed wings releasing / orange-yellow dust into the night breeze.” The adjacent note reads, “chaos: after her / accident the house fell into decline, fruit / flies like blackheads / stippled rotting pears…” These alternative poems, mini-lyrics, resembling skinny newspaper columns, are also, in a sense, buffers. The poet feels deeply, and wants us to see her feeling, but also wants to wall off her painful sensitivity, the fear that “chaos has its own furious design.…”
One strong poem lacks the side note: “Let’s have it out, shall we? / Hurl everything through windows / fracturing surfaces / we’d grown to believe solid // and get scraped down / to the breastbone, / a searing clean.” It is shorn of unnecessary ornament and “extra” rumination. The vivid couplet, “Piece by piece we pick apart the orange / as if sunshine were ours to kill and eat” would have retained that arresting power, had it not been chased by lesser lines. Shin’s struggle is between observant reticence and sensual abandon. More observant abandon might be a compromise.