BY MARGARET AVISON
Dark like a handful of cool gray silk.
Clocks strike the hour. Out in the clear-gleaming sky
a robin’s song, silence unravelling.
The trees with tremulous-aching fingers
shaping the quiet airflow.
Sick-faint dark limp
in the arms of the infinite.
the bean-mash smell.
leaky tin-brim spill.
birds clotted in big trees.
Cotton people in go-holes:
— from No Time (Lancelot Press, 1989)
I am ending my stay at How Poems Work with these two signal poems by Margaret Avison. The first is a good representation of her spiritual poetry, the second is one of her almost hallucinogenic critiques/com- memorations of modern life. What I especially like about these two poems is how directly they attack their subjects; Avison is not a poet to hang back despite her themes, which often seem to demand silence if not revery. She is an avowedly religious poet, one of a very few in this country who can avoid the cliché and cant of much of what passes for religious poetry. It is the clarity of her language that transforms her work from what, in other hands, is often maundering testimonial.
In April, she describes a darkness that is either sunrise or sunset. The vision is an occasion for the awe and terror that often attends Avison’s poems: the “sick-faint dark/ limp in the arms of the infinite.”
The poem’s first five lines unwrap a scene that feels familiar, but the existential shiver at the end of the poem brings us hard up against something we may not always feel or be able to put words to. It has something to do with the general instability of our existence, and much of nature in Avison’s poetry is accompanied by this acute awareness. Here we have an almost pastoral scene, but “Clocks strike the hour,” and a robin’s song is heard in a kind of reversal: The song does not fill or cancel the silence, it unravels it.
Crowd Corralling is an even briefer poem, but it has a knockout punch. It appeals sharply to the senses, creating a picture of a downtown cityscape with its “bean-mash” scents. It also features a clutch of locutions any poet would kill to be visited by. I’ll single out “Cotton people in go-holes” for particular celebration: What an amazing distillation of the spin and roil of city life; the image imparts a sense of ritual that is both bemoaned and celebrated in the final four words of the poem. “Beautiful,” Avison offers, but “sheepdogging” too: We are locked in gorgeous rituals, but they corral us as well.
In both of these poems, there is Avison’s hallmark veneration, which is always underscored by a sense that in living, we are in the thrall of something both lovely and fearsome.
Originally published in the Globe & Mail.