As Close as We Came
W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.
This book of poetry (handsomely produced, with text on only one side of the page, and printed on good paper) comes to us, surprisingly enough, with recommendations on the cover from a novelist (Josef Skvorecky) and a critic (Northrop Frye). There is something appropriate about this oddity. As Close as We Came is made up of elusive, difficult poems, though the words that compose them are all crystal clear. In some respects they recall the more enigmatic mythopoeic poems of the 1950s and 1960s. The one thing certain is that, throughout the sequence, there runs a love affair set against the background of a cold Russian climate and a threatening Russian state. Moreover, the symbolic structure seems to open out to reflect mankind in a hostile universe. Each poem presents a particular series of images, a story fragment, an emblematic action, sometimes an almost surrealist fantasy.
The meaning of the words, then, is straightforward enough; yet the significance of each poem is nonetheless problematic. Despite a page of notes at the end, I often suspected uneasily that I lacked an all-important key that might reveal a unity to the whole. Inevitably I looked for clues, resemblances. In places I detected the imagistic clarity that Callaghan admired in W.W.E. Ross (“Clean rime, / white jade on the / window pane”). At times the basic imagery recalled the early Leonard Cohen (burning, wounds and scars, metaphors of extremity); at others one remembered Eliot’s Waste Land (fishing, drowning, dust, an unreal city, promise of rain). But I’m not sure how to apply these interrelations, or whether they work legitimately as part of the poetic experience. This is a poetry of vagueness that exists in the moment between vision and reality, between consciousness and dream. Each image is itself sharp, but it occurs within a context always fuzzy at the edges. I find myself trying to connect nothing with nothing. There is a gnomic effectiveness throughout; individual lines and images haunt the mind, but, if there is a cumulative significance, I failed to find it. Pleasant but puzzling: that is as close as /came.