||The Longevity Of Love
by David Hickey
If a processional can be said to consist of those rituals observed during a ceremony of faith, it should come as no surprise that Anne Compton's second collection of poetry bears witness to those denominators most common to us all: loss, love, grief, and perseverance. These concepts appear in Compton's poem as secular rites, each of which proceeds in fits and starts through the slow, calculated progression of her lines.
In "The House After Dark, Winter", for example, Compton's speaker begins by taking an inventory of her house at midnight, its lamps extinguished, its kitchen caroused by moonlight. As she climbs the stairs, this "woman in conclusion" moves from one thought to next, never bothering to establish clear connections between the disparate list of things that occur to her, just as one never feels compelled to justify the illogical workings of a tired mind. The speaker states, "Upstairs, downstairs, rooms for this and that.// Why aren't there better words for what we love?"Here, Compton pairs a practical observation with a rhetorical question, and, in doing so, reveals a technique central to her poetry. By placing her metaphysical concerns alongside the quotidian and the practical, Compton's poems retain a kind of far-reaching matter-of-factness, one that enables her work to succeed through a combination of personality, allusion, lyrical sparseness, and intelligence.
Take "Obiter Dicta, While Spring Housecleaning", for example. Here, the poet records a series of passing thoughts, each of which appears as a one or two-line stanza on the page. The poem succeeds because the progression from one item is pleasantly unpredictable, in much the same way the flippancy of our own imaginations can entertain us for hours:
Words are like windows, unremarkable if clean.
Vinegar works best.
Working away wood smoke and rain smear:
Hank Williams crooning 'bout love.
A chronic wasting disease that afflicts men
handling six-wheelers and sonnets.
What I wouldn't do for a Glenfiddy just now.
Once more the windows are full of leaves.
All the white in the world is in the ditches:
Yarrow in bloom.
Achillea millefolium, its proper name. Achilles
took an arrow in the heel. The heart hurts
worse, according to Hank.
As seen in this opening passage, Compton's imagination has room for both Hank Williams and Achilles, six-wheelers and sonnets. Refreshing are the liberties Compton grants herself, not the least of which is the freedom to move from one item to the next without spelling out for the reader the relationship between them. Much like the poems in Mark Strand's Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More, maintaining a narrative progression is less important than crafting the speaker's consciousness. What matters most to the poem is that it adheres to its own internal logic, and trusts each of its metaphors as guideposts along the way.
Technical aspects aside, "Obiter Dicta, While Spring Housecleaning" is one of many poems in this collection that point to an almost religious occupation with dwellings. Notions of shelter and inhabitance weave their way through the body of Compton's work, as variations on the word "house" appear in this collection 32 times. One poem in particular, "A Schoolmaster lessons a scholar in figurative language", does a good job of representing the themes that emerge from this fascination. The poem begins with the question, "Row four, seat six, how is the heart like a house?" to which another speaker, presumably a student, replies:
In its many chambers, Sir, the heart is like a
house, and valves,
I'd say, Sir, are its doorways. Opening and
closing under pressure
though snug in their fit. Paths lead to, lead from,
Here, Compton takes the all-too familiar symbol of the human heart and frames it in a house with chambers and doorways. Doing so, however, begs the question of who resides there. One could argue that Compton dedicates the bulk of the poems in the collection to answering that very question. Certainly, although these poems follow the procession of one season to the next, what becomes clear is that the places from which one witnesses these changes are as important as the procession itself. Again, the idea of house is of special significance, as these physical spaces become metaphors for all that contains us. Three poems in the second section of the book, The House, One Field Away, make this point especially clear.
In the first of these poems, "Every House Backs on a Seawall," the speaker's aversion to domestic clutter, used here as a metaphor for a reluctance to deal the aftermath of death, gives way to an empathetic portrait of the deceased:
We stand a ways off when grief is in the house.
Our forfeit, a figure behind glass, dully clad.
We're watchers from the street, unable to cross over,
claim the loss. The mind has fences it erects, hedges.
Houseguests, it'd rather not admit. It's hired a realtor.
The lot, it says, is upkeep I've no knack for.
There's ways I'm handy, ways I'm not. I'm best
at borders, definitions, that sort of thing.
Interiors - where cupboards stand open - are my
Such clutter. As if the woman there had all her life,
poor soul, got up a store of souvenirs. She's in there
forehead full of shadows, shifting this and that
I've half a mind times like this to plunge the heart in
The seawall in this poem is not so much an embankment that prevents erosion as it is a boundary between the speaker and the woman who is still "in there now//forehead full of shadows, shifting this and that overboard." As the title suggests, every home, as well as every loss, comes complete with its own set of boundaries, each of which would seem to either hold us in or keep us out, depending on how we are situated. Yet the speaker in this poem would overcome this boundary, just as she has "half a mind . . . to plunge the heart in after." This desire for transcendence finds a counterpart in the youthful longing that punctuates "Heating the House". Here, the speaker reflects on the home in which she was raised, one which could very well have been Compton's own, growing up as she did in rural Prince Edward Island:
The halls were never heated. They had their
The high-varnished chill of baluster and banister
a place for morning prayer
before the clatter of the kitchen
where serious-sized adults welcomed a youngest
and didn't ask - their glances did - if on every step
she'd been mindful of her shortcomings.
In this poem, as she does throughout the collection, Compton maintains an uneasy reverence for her upbringing, one whose influence is never far from her work. Unique to this piece, however, is the way in which this poet allows for the interplay of two distinct symbols, both of which relate the difficulty of growing up with the "gospel truth". The poem begins with a preoccupation with heat, but then shifts to the image of "cormorants", which, "like character," are "nasty by nature // until corrected." Here, the birds become symbols for the child's "unfit" nature, one that requires "chapter and verse" to purify. Yet, as Compton points out, even these corrective measures cannot completely repress youthful longing, as the speaker laments the "reckless hour, when I heard, or thought I heard, a dozen voices confess desires like mine." The order that follows, "Don't let the heat out", seems as much a caution against what to let in, as beyond the "hipped roof of home", "melancholy birds" stir "the frigid air." That the air should be "frigid" seems especially appropriate, as Compton rounds out the poem with a fine contrast between the supposed "warmth" of the home environment and the frigidness of the "mongrel" world.
The complexity of households also comes to life in "The Company House". Here, Compton relates the diverse community of family members that finds itself under one roof: the "brothers with their new brides settled on the second floor," the "old men, abed in their pain," and the "children, upstairs and down, according to age." With these lines, Compton shows us how the house contains the family unit, as generations arrange themselves "by the storey." Vivid memories populate the poem, as the speaker recalls "the births in the bedrooms high overhead," the "washing of the dead," and "wood and water in endless exchange." What especially lends authenticity to this poem, and to the collection as a whole, is the sense of uncertainty that permeates the speaker's recollections. As she considers the nature of her family, she asks "the longevity of love, was it? Or, imperishable order?" This is Compton at her best: uncertainty, longing, and recollection all digging away at the mysteries of our lives. Here, in her Governor General Award winning collection, Compton maintains a loyalty to the dark riddles of the past, and reveals a haunted procession. ò
David Hickey's first book of poems is forthcoming from Biblioasis.