Ken Babstock on Helen Humphreys


What we make doesn’t recover from us.
Twisted scaffold, trellis of rust. This
is how we will be gone. The steel hull
grinning with rivets. Shiny notes of chrome
swinging from the stave of the wrecker’s wall.

Those we loved and nothing for that. The moon
a chalk circle over dark harbour.
Old rail tracks slippery under my feet.
Broken ladder on the tanker. My  breath
ascending the rungs of air. I have

been here, lived in this place, loved you.
There’s a snarl of wire on white sand.
Plastic bottles nested in tall grasses
by the channel mouth. We are survived by these
shapes, by the shape of our lives without us.

— From Anthem (Brick Books, 1999)

Good poems approach their readers displaying wildly differing manners; from the warm melodic wash of a Wallace Stevens soundscape to the elegant, unnervingly clear-eyed observations of an Elizabeth Bishop narrative. Successful lyric poems convince us that their essential selves, how the voice is saying whatever it’s saying, is a singularity in the universe: No other poem acts exactly like this one.

In Anthem, her fourth collection, Kingston’s Helen Humphreys shows us a poem can appear in a civil, relatively unadorned, even unassuming voice, even as its separate elements combine quietly to produce the blue intensity of an acetylene torch.

Much of the power in Humphrey’s voice rests in its deceptive forthrightness — a lucid, controlled tone that masks real quickness of thought and an affecting interplay between concrete imagery and first-person declarative statements. By the end of the second line we’re forced to deal with the tension between the thing looked at and the emotions of the one doing the looking.

Then, immediately, a brilliant line break, “This/ is how we will be gone.” The poet dangles the definite article out over the precipice, the natural pause of the break allowing time for the condition of stasis and lifelessness to sink into our imaginations (we’re not aware of it it, but it’s happening).

The second stanza begins with a very unsettling sentence: “Those we loved and nothing for that.” Does “that” refer to the loved ones or to the condition of Thingness set up in the first stanza? The intermixing of objects with the human continues: The speaker’s feet and the old tracks; her breath appearing in the line right after “the tanker,” making lungs seem mechanical, yet intimately her own.

Another sly line break right before the space between stanzas, “I have,” is a statement of ownership and fullness, and we believe for a moment the poem is pulling itself upward to some positive endnote. What we get is the past in a flood of fragments. The first-person “I” won’t appear again in the rest of the poem, even though our eyes want to insert it before “loved you.” Objects remain. They outlast us.

If there’s any redemption in the final stanza, it might be found in that haunting image of the plastic bottles in tall grasses. Things of little weight, transparent, filled with air, they may outlast us but they too will eventually go, leaving the world uncluttered, empty, and full of the possible.

One last thought: Poems are remarkably difficult to attach a good title to. A title should be working as hard as any other word in the poem. “Installation” is defined in the Canadian Oxford as “the process or instance of being installed” and “a large work of art…” In the first stanza we could actually be hearing the poet’s gloss on a sculpture or installation, but by the end we’re perceiving ourselves as temporary installations. Which raises the question of who’s visiting the gallery. –Ken Babstock

Ken Babstock’s last collection of poetry, Methodist Hatchet, won the Griffin Prize. This column originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, April 28, 2001. Look for more reprints from Babstock’s column in the coming weeks. If you are interested in writing a How Poems Work check out our submission guidelines. You can follow Ken Babstock @KBabstock on Twitter.

Helen Humphrey’s latest publication is Nocturne.