Imaginative poetry collection worth multiple readings

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December 11, 2014

Astatine

By Michael Kenyon

Brick Books

135 pages; $20

Reviewed by Alisha Dukelow

“Are you as lonely as I am?” Michael Kenyon’s speaker asks Astatine, who replies, “Non è possibile.” Akin to Dante’s Beatrice, Astatine is a sassy, enigmatic Italian woman named after the rarest non-transuranic element that “has never been viewed because a mass large enough to be seen by the naked human eye would immediately be vaporized by the heat generated by its own radioactivity.” This may sound arcane but never did I feel alone with a self-consumed narrator throughout this West Coast writer’s fourth collection of poems

Astatine’s voice ghosts in and out of the four numbered sections, confounding and challenging the speaker to try to find words for transpersonal, perennial concerns—of the ephemerality of mortality, human loss, the relationship and bleed between past, present and future, the power of storytelling, as well as, paradoxically, the limitations of language. For instance, in “Fragile,” the poet wonders, “How fragile is the thread that refastens / this morning to one four centuries ago,” and, in the proceeding lines, Astatine nudges him to further articulate his metaphor:

“Si, riconnette. Che cos’è?  (Yes, it reconnects. What is it?)
The old man’s sorrow dying in his throat
after last words to his son, his daughter,
their words like ours stolen by the wind,
leaving a necklace of small hollow bones.
Sarebbe ossa vivere su un filo fragile? (Would bones live on a fragile thread?)”

Descartes, Darwin, Newton, Spinoza, Rilke, Plato, Aristotle, Laozi, Tu Fu and Pink Floyd are some of the “classic” figures (usually Western and almost always male) alluded to in this book. The poems are also haunts for recurring symbols and images—including birds, hospitals, nurses, water, light and chemistry—but the context and language in which they reappear is never the same.

For example, in “Song,” there is “A robin lit on the root of a fir . . . while from the topmost limb / the robin’s mate was a blur / of song” and the speaker is “in the least-lit room / on the fifth floor.” In “Hospital Grounds,” a “Limb of an Oak, Robin’s Mate, Blue Blur / of Song” echoes; then, in “July Traffic,” the speaker is “clutching a frame / in the least-lit room” where he “[keeps] robins.” In “Red Blooms,” the poet states that he intends “to split everything, / to dwell on isotopes, find new settings / for old arguments.”

Whenever a reference from the past or a visual from an earlier poem returns, it is like a variant of a preceding chemical element, slightly re-envisioned or re-dreamed. In this way, I think that Kenyon deftly succeeds in showing us how the present alters our interpretation of what has come before, and I was prevented from overtiring of the aforementioned motifs, allusions and imagery (which certainly are familiar).

The poems’ locational backdrops are far-reaching—many are British Columbian, but the reader also ventures to Beograd, a café in New York, the Aeneid and a multiplicity of ineffable emotional places. There is wide variety, too, in Kenyon’s use of syntax, grammar and form, which ranges from prose poetry and blank verse to a palindromic stanza and a pantoum. His diction, for the most part, is direct and conversational. I was grateful for this choice as I grappled with the answerless questions he raises and dream-logic of many of the pieces. I was continually, happily, doing a double read, a triple read, a quadruple read, without ever feeling as though I had landed on a fixed destination or conclusion. Astatine is a thickly layered, imaginative travelling experience with preoccupations that are worth continuing to puzzle over.

Alisha Dukelow is in her final year of the University of Victoria’s writing program, with a focus on poetry and fiction.

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