Recently I had two encounters with poetry without reading any poems. The first took place in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood, where high-end art galleries hold sway and the river is just a few blocks away. A friend and I stood and admired a four-storey red brick townhouse that was for sale on West 21 Street, while engaging in one of those “what it might be like to live here” reveries. Not too long after I got home, I learned that in the second decade of the 20th century, the house we’d admired was where Wallace Stevens wrote his great poem, Sunday Morning, with its celebration of “late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair.”
A few months later, in another corner of the eastern United States, I passed a sign posted on a trail in the woods of Vermont, bearing Robert Frost’s poem, The Birthplace. It was placed there, I assumed, to interpret the “mountain slope” covered in trees behind it.
Finding poetry where we least expect it – Stevens, mute on West 21 Street, and Frost, declarative on a ski trail in the Green Mountains – is the hallmark of a great poem.
In an essay titled, Poetry’s Bottom Line, Montreal-based poet Robyn Sarah asks, “What makes a poem a poem? What makes a good poem good?” She offers a number of answers to these queries, including: “A true poem has a voice one can trust – a distinctive voice, utterly its own, one that is unaware of audience. It is a voice less heard than overheard, and this is partly what moves us.”
So utterly alone is the voice of Frost that he was transformed into a kind of all-purpose American symbol, an address to the landscape and national character taught to school children. Stevens is another kind of animal altogether – opaque, almost abstract, but moving in unexpected ways.
Sarah cites Stevens as the poet she comes “back to most often,” and he may provide a key to a reading of her new book, Wherever We Mean to Be: Selected Poems, 1975-2015. As with Stevens, it’s not always easy to place the poet herself in her poems – biography is set aside, in favour of context, setting and a relationship with the past. And many poems in Wherever We Mean to Be depict the lives of girls and women in ways that are reminiscent of folk tales and myths. This is how Stevens portrays his new bride, Elsie Moll, in Sunday Morning. West 21 Street, with its remarkable history and character, evaporates; the Chelsea gulls give way to “quail” whistling “their spontaneous cries.”
Sarah does the same with her hometown of Montreal. She rarely names it, so a reader who’s unfamiliar with the city would not worry herself about where the poems take place.
But this does not stop Sarah from dropping overwhelming hints about the setting, such as the fact that so many of the poems take place during the winter:
“I grow to like the bare/trees and the snow, the bones and fur/of winter. Even the greyness/of the nunneries, they are so grey,/walled all around with grey stones – /and the snow piled up on ledges.”
This portrays a kind of timeless Montreal. The rooms described in her work also maintain a certain specific Montrealness. They are like rooms from an earlier time, with steam radiators, winter drafts and wind in the chimney with a chance view out of a window of a “twist/ of fire-escape.”
This city, read by a kind of hidden code, seems lost in time; lives lived in its outmoded rooms have a timeless quality. In a long poem called In Winter Rooms – Sarah’s winterized Sunday Morning – “sad grey light” covers everything – the “chimney-pipe,” the “balcony rail” and the sill – as an “old woman rocks and rocks in the rocking chair. The young woman is making bread, pounding the dough on a wooden board. A dust of flour is on the air. She pounds and thumps the dough until her strong knuckles ache,” while a “child plays on the floor.”
The city, read by a kind of hidden code, seems lost in time
A reader with an ear for the Hebrew Bible might find a modern-day Naomi in this story, with dough in place of the corn. Montreal haunts the poem, but the poet’s private space and time have been filled with some larger and richer resonance.
Sarah dispenses with the expectation that she reveal herself as the poems’ maker. Her two decades of teaching at a West Island college, her long-time residence near Montreal’s Mount Royal, her dedication to music and her 2015 Governor General’s Award, are no more than background notes to the tableaux her poems present.
It is in this particular approach to her material that Sarah’s voice is most distinctive. The poems in Wherever We Mean to Be are resonant and full of detail, but they refuse to alight in the here and now, and they do not reveal the poet’s private world. Sarah is not as opaque as Stevens – he is an abstract painter, she a careful crafter of motifs and moods. In a few cases, the reader may recognize a sonnet, and in one, a contemporary psalm:
“God! I am dead empty./Pour me full again./I am leaden: lighten me./My cables are cut.”
But the voice remains utterly its own, in pursuit of what Sarah calls “the lost soundtrack of daily life.”