Pathology of the Senses
Oligotrophic: of lakes and rivers. The heat
an inanimate slur, wool gathering, hanging
like a bad suit. Suspended fine particulate
matter. And an eight-million-dollar ferry shoves off
for Rochester, no souls aboard. I see you,
you know, idling like a limousine through the old
neighbourhoods, your tinted windows. In what
they call “the mind’s eye.” Catch me here
in real time, if that’s the term for it. We work
our drinks under threat of a general brownout.
Phospholipase is activated by bitter stimuli.
Back home, we call this a beer parlour.
I washed my hair at 4 a.m., he says. The full moon,
it was wack. He can’t sleep. The woman
who says pardon my French, over and over,
can’t sleep. They are drunk as young corn. Sweet,
white, freestone peaches. A bit stepped-on.
You said we’d have fun. Do I look happy?
Our fingers, our ankles, swell in unison. Word
spreads. “Toronto,” in Huron, means
“place of meetings.” Even now, you may be
darkening my door. On my bike, she says, I dress
all reflective. Even now, you’re troubling
my windbreak. The vertebrate heart muscle
does not fatigue and is under the regulation
of nerves. I’ll wait. First it’s unlike evening.
Then it’s unlike night. Thirty degrees in a false
high noon, no shade when all things lie
in shadow. The lake is a larger mind with pressures
brought to bear, a wet hot headache
in the hind brain. Above it, cloud racks up.
A mean idea it’s taking to, breathing
through its mouth. In this year of Our Lord
your approach shoulders in, the onset
of a chronic understanding. There are rivers
underfoot, paved over. Humber, Taddle Creek,
just the way they sound. To be abyssal
is to inhabit water below 1,000 feet.
I need a good costume, he says, but don’t
know what that entails. Walk the districts.
Misery of historic buildings. Superheated
rooms of the poor. Sorry, cooling station
closed. Lack of funding. I like my feet
covered up at night, doesn’t everyone.
Blinking, naked atop our sheets. Smoke
rises but does not disperse. The air hairy as a fly.
In fly weather. Tight under the arms.
It also depletes your spinal fluid. In your spine.
Aesthetic injury level the degree of pest
abundance above which control measures
should be taken. God, what she’s wearing.
I’m tolerably certain you know the way. Red
tide of the sidewalks. Pass the dry cleaners
and Wigs, Wigs, Wigs! It used to be called
100% Human Hair. That’s right. “Ontario”
an Iroquois word meaning “sparkling waters.”
Like doleful seaweed, our predilections undulate.
Rats come out to sniff garbage blooms
in rat weather. Heavy cloud, colour of slag
and tailings, green light gathering
like an angry jelly. Pardon my French. The city
on rails, grinding toward a wreck the lake
cooks up. When you arrive, you may
be soaked to the skin. A tall drink of water. Darken
my door. All of my organs are fully involved.
He’s a little freshet breeze. We are as any microbes
inhabiting extreme environments, surviving
in the free-living or parasitic modes. Chins above
the germ line. Is it true a rat can spring a latch.
Is it true all creatures love their children. Raccoons
and skunks smell society in decline. That sag
at the middle. Rat weather. Fly weather. A certain
absence of tenderness. Who will you believe.
Bear me away to a motel by the highway. I like
a nice motel by the highway, an in-ground pool.
It’s a take it or leave it type deal. Eutrophic:
of lakes and rivers. See now, she says,
that’s the whole reason you can’t sit up
on the railing, so you don’t fall over. Freon,
exhaust, the iron motes of dry lightning. Getting
pushed, he says, is not falling. Jangling metal
in pockets, you walk balanced in your noise,
breath like a beam. I harbour ill will. By this
shall you know me. Caducous:
not persistent. Of sepals, falling off
as a flower opens. Of stipules, falling off as leaves
unfold. Speak of the devil, the devil appears.
Karen Solie, from Pigeon, Anansi 2009
“Pathology of the Senses” opens into the concentrated heat of a lake-side southern Ontario town. This heat, “an inanimate slur, wool gathering, hanging like a bad suit,” sustains itself through the entire poem. Four pages of tercets, stripped of all exposition and direction, slog onward, unfold. The speaker’s tone is humourless, uninflected: questions are presented as statements, flattened out by the inundating present, left unanswered. As “cloud racks up” above the lake, the poem racks up definitions for oligotrophic, eutrophic, caducous, absyssal, meanings for Toronto and Ontario. There is a repetition of cliché phrases: Darken my door. A tall drink of water. Pardon my french. And the doubling continues, in “fly weather,” “rat weather.” There is “a certain absence of tenderness,” and this intrigues me: What does Solie have in mind, opening the book into this stifling heat, with this unvarying tone?
The poem, in the simplest sense, is about two people wandering through a nameless town by a lake. Having spent some time in Wasaga Beach on Lake Huron, and Port Dover on Lake Erie, I can imagine this place, an “extreme environment,” set up purely for tourist season. The speaker and her companion, “drunk as young corn” and “a bit stepped-on,” have been here before. Fragments of their dialogue are interspersed with the details tallying in the speaker’s mind. They wander through, the speaker feeling a particular sense of melancholy, “the onset/of a chronic understanding.” This, for me, links back to the title, which implies that we are plagued by our senses. I think the more interesting nuance the title suggests is that by studying our senses (paying close attention) we discover the changes that occur through the experience. Here, “Our fingers, our ankles, swell in unison,” and by the end the speaker (and reader) is known for the ill will she harbours.
The last line, another cliché phrase turned poignant, is rewarding, haunting: “Speak of the devil,” the speaker warns, “the devil appears.” This line is, for me, the reason Solie starts this collection here: if the poems beyond this point attend to our most difficult man-made objects (tractors, aircraft, fossil fuels) and human feelings (compassion, disgust, responsibility) it is only because we alone have called them into being.
This poem, I think, is meant to be read slowly, demands the reader’s active attention; “Pathology of the Senses” is at once extraordinary and tough. If it’s hard, it’s because it conjurs up a contemporary North American malaise, which is complicated at best. In her Globe and Mail review of Pigeon, Meg Walker is reminded of Don McKay’s essays in Vis à Vis: Fieldnotes on Poetry and Wilderness. In his newest book from Gaspereau Press, The Muskwa Assemblage, McKay’s thoughts about wilderness continue: “There is, says Simone Weil, an informal part of the soul. I think something like that part is where the wilderness resonates, where we sense ourselves to be, not masters of creation, not technological wunderkinds, but beings among beings.” Here, at the beginning of this book, we are reduced to our senses. A watery mirage rises up from the scorched sidewalk in front of us: a significant change occurs through this experience.
Sheryda Warrener’s poems have been published in literary journals across Canada, including The Malahat Review, Event, The Antigonish Review, Grain, and The Fiddlehead, and in the anthology Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets (Nightwood, 2004). This spring, she was shortlisted for the Malahat Review Long Poem prize. A recent graduate from the MFA program at the University of British Columbia, Sheryda lives in Vancouver, where she is completing her first poetry manuscript.