Poet sees prairie clearly

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August 18, 2013

Seldom Seen Road
By Jenna Butler
NeWest Press, 76 pages, $14.95

Reviewed by Karen Enns

The title poem of Jenna Butler’s Seldom Seen Road, the Edmonton author’s third book, opens with the line “what is true about this land” and goes on to list these truths: that “ prairie is scant / but wears it well,” that “all signs last,” and “against earth / everything is transitory.” The final image of a sun that “catches your eye like a backward glance / alights  moves on” gives us a sense of the tone of these prairie poems and a glimpse, too, of Butler’s subtle exploration of fragility and strength: how they coexist and at what cost.

Throughout, Butler’s eyes and ears are committed to fine observation–“frantic counterpoint of orioles”, for instance, and  “pinwheels of hummingbirds”–but it is her use of the tough language of farm labour and life that really charges the poetry. Axes and mattocks pack a consonantal punch, as do words like scythes and balers, feeder roots, the east quarter, back forty, a pickup “shunting like a heifer,” fescue and gumbo. Some of the most striking lines combine this aural muscularity with a delicately framed lyricism:

from the hill    you watch
the back forty gone to muskeg
& tamarack     the shifting dance of
slough birds    white pelican lifts
a pleated wing
to steer out over dark water
navigating the skin of things

these still     black places
this accidental light

The central section, Lepidopterists, is a collection of epitaphs to prairie women interspersed with poems named after butterflies like “Riding’s Satyr,” “Gray Copper,” and “Jutta Arctic.”  Images of women like Mary Norton, who starved to death in 1728 near Churchill at the age of twenty, become bold points of focus, like eye spots, against understated poems such as “Afranius Duskywing”:

unremarkable
she rests amongst
the buffalo bean

what is slight
goes unnoticed

hush of two generations
finding flight
lapis wings
bluing the air

The poems are filled with abandoned towns and farmhouses, deserted railway tracks, the many signs of human interaction with the land that last: a “bell tower gone to pigeons,” and a church “down to staves”. There is haunting and grief in “the way heat eases & / pummels a town / when the elevators fall  when / we are faced with / the rubble of their passing”. Fragility and strength are sometimes interchangeable, and solitude is simply part of it, the toll: “Look back all you want / one cart track ambling / mercurial skyline.”

But there remains a deep commitment to the prairie that “knows the right of it / where you are is where you stand”. That place, it seems, is not necessarily static. Butler chooses a quote from Alberta Wriiter George Melnyk to introduce her collection: “On the prairie, one twists around and around until the straight horizon line turns into a circle, and the visual turns visionary.” That gradual shift, that process, according to the poet, has much to do with the gaze of the seer. And tough love. In “Called Back,” a husband returns with his elderly wife to the place they know so well. Her weathered focus on what matters most is clear:

she scours the porch
at the seniors’ residence
thinks forty years of northern spruce
slimwillow loon-call

nothing to fasten on here but
claretcup     paintbrush
sunbruised petals she spots & loves hard.

Karen Enns is a Victoria poet and musician.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Janet E. Smith August 25, 2013 at 8:10 am

A deservedly excellent review, including the choices of examples of this work, and Enns ways of referring to it; “. . . subtle exploration of fragility and strength: how they coexist and at what cost.”

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