Ordinary Hours sings with quiet wisdom

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October 27, 2014

Ordinary Hours

Karen Enns

Brick Books

71 pages, $20

Reviewed by Carla Funk

The opening line of “Prelude,” the first poem in Karen Enns’ second collection, states: “Nothing is happening.” Yes, “Rachmaninoff plays in the other room / but there is nothing here.” What pours forth beyond the “nothing” is a litany of negative images within the white walls of this room: “no burning cities,” “no communists in sight, high priests / or seers,” “no dark horses / taking to the hills,” and even “no moon.” What’s not present, the poet names as “absence, not emptiness/ and something close to echo.”

The act of casting back into memory, of calling back the absent underscores the poems in Ordinary Hours, and tints the language with loss. But what moves the elegiac bent of this poetry into a more dynamic music is Enns’ attention to beauty within the commonplace. Sometimes, this beauty arrives as stillness, the pacing of the lines slowing down the hectic mind within time’s rush. In “There Are Words Carved in Wood,” the poet catalogues the human life, childhood to deathbed, but uses the sentence rhythms, fragments and caesura to arrest and intensify the fleeting and the temporal:

“There is desire. Lingering desire. Lingering. White trillium and fern.
Dry heat in the poplars. Solitude.

There are voices in the wind. Small stone bowls filled with water
underneath the dripping tap. Bird nests. Clay.”

Throughout these poems, beauty also arrives through the alchemy of metaphor. A rooster ia “featherweight evangelist.” Grief possesses a “stone-white tone that [holds] its pitch.” An old man stands smoking in the evening, “the tip of his cigarette a firefly above the lawn.” Enns’ imagination is alert and deft as it exalts life’s small details.

Ordinary Hours is divided into three numbered sections whose ideas and images overlap and repeat like variations on major themes. Wind, trees, shadows, whiteness, flowers, sky, mothers, fathers and music echo in the poems. Childhood, rural farm life, family, the poet’s Mennonite ancestry, spirituality, devotion, beauty, loss — these subjects and concerns recur throughout, but each iteration strives to bring something new to the page. At times, some of the poems’ endings echo too cleanly, with light relied on heavily as a final image. Still, the larger effect of these repetitions is one of unity, stitching the collection into a longer musical score.

For me, the major delight of Ordinary Hours is the quiet wisdom with which it sings. Enns’ poems do not challenge in form and style, do not push the boundaries of convention and language. Her diction is precise. Her images arrive via a sharp, intuitive mind. But she writes poetry embering with essential truth. Even a “Suite for Tools” becomes a meditation on physical work that gives rise to transcendence. Even when writing about chimney repairs, bus stops and crows, the poet’s eye practices the art of deep seeing, lifting up from the humble context a high thought. In the opening lines of “What I Was Told to Do with My Soul,” Enns writes:

“Leave it in the hands of someone who knows best
what to do with its dark folds and mystery,
someone who can see its possibilities
without bias, even from a distance,
and shape it into something leaner
with a purpose, who can take it from you easily
as if it were a simple loaf of bread you’d offered
or a song.
Let it go.”

To read Karen Enns’ Ordinary Hours is to wake up to the extraordinary within the ordinary hours of daily living, to open the door to a room of music that’s quiet, spare, honest. In the hectic barrage of this world’s noise, these poems counter with their stillness and clarity, illuminating what beauty breaks out when the mind pays attention, the eye finally sees and the ear leans in to listen.

Carla Funk’s most recent book of poetry is Apologetic, published by Turnstone Press.

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