Robert Currie, The Days Run Away (Regina: Coteau, 2015). Paperbound, 108 pp., $16.95.
In his blurb for The Days Run Away, former Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Robert Currie's sixth poetry collection, John Donlan describes the book as a collection of "prairie epiphanies." Fitting, then, that James Joyce, who is usually credited with the contemporary, secular application of the epiphany, should be referenced a few times toward the end of the collection.
Implicit in the idea of the epiphanic is a sense that the poet's persona has stepped out of time and place, has entered into one of Wordsworth's "spots of time" that grant us moments of intense, almost transcendent clarity. Given literary epiphany's (apparent) Joycean origins, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the majority of the poems in this collection are short narrative pieces (including some prose poems), during which the speaker gradually moves toward a sudden epiphany about context, relationships, or himself. It's worth mentioning that several critics have recently voiced concerns that this relatively common structure can become somewhat predictable, and there are moments in The Days Run Away that risk succumbing to a kind of "sameness." That Currie is able to avoid this problem is testament to his strength as a poet.
The Days Run Away is divided into five sections, the first four of which roughly correspond with various stages in the speaker's life: childhood, early adulthood, and full adulthood. These poems feature an intense focus on place—specifically, the prairies. In "The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills"
The weeks gallop from summer into September,
gallop away from the lake, a sheen of ice by the shore.
Hoofbeats hammer the gulch where deer hide from the hunter,
echo across a dry slough; a last goose cries in the empty sky.
The weeks snort at a sliver of moon, shiver in the night
of the coyote, its chill call stretching across the land.
There's an emphasis on time, as well, with many of the poems situated in the speaker's past. Particularly affecting are a series of poems in the first section ("The Sudden Lift") that focus on youth and the joys and difficulties that arise in friendships ("Crash Course"; "Gordie and Me") and disintegrating family relationships ("Boy at the Door"). In "This Time," the poem that provides the section with its title, a tense breakfast scene degenerates into a bitter argument, broken by the child's fantasy of sudden levitation away from the family home until "he's just a dot way off in the heavens." There's a surprising (and refreshing) honesty to the poems about dating and the ambivalent emotions stirred up by young love: after an awkward and uncomfortable evening spent side-by-side on the couch, the teenaged boy walks his date home; when he phones her the following week ("this is the honourable thing to do") and is informed that she is not at home, "he feels such a rush of emotion / he can hardly believe his good luck" ("Young Love"). After kissing a young woman goodnight, the boy walks back to his borrowed car, "steps uncertain / and short, as if crossing a sheet of ice" ("Blind Date"). Interestingly, many of the poems in this section are in third-person, as though the speaker is watching himself from a distance, allowing for the kind of detached compassion that makes such honesty possible.
The Days Run Away's final section, "Breath Like a Rap Beat," is the collection's strongest and most moving: in it, Currie documents the final illness and passing of fellow Saskatchewan poet Gary Hyland, who died of ALS in 2011. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) is a particularly cruel illness, robbing its victims of all control over their bodies until even breath is impossible. These poems are difficult but rewarding, beginning with the earliest appearances of the ailment as it disrupts Hyland's graceful Tai Chi movements ("Where He's Going") and progressing through to his death and the simple, Prospero-like ritual the speaker imagines performing to commemorate his friend's passing: in his mind, the speaker tosses Hyland's prized edition of Ulysses into the river and watches as it floats downstream until, "squashed between wedges of ice," it disappears from sight, like the rising boy we encountered in "This Time" ("Ulysses"). The poem—and the collection—ends with a subtly compassionate gesture I won't spoil by revealing.
Currie introduces gently wry humour throughout the collection, which helps to vary the tone of the book. "He Visits His Ex-Wife," for example, describes a visit to a nursing home and a story about a couple eaten by bears; at the end of the poem:
She reaches out then and takes his hand.
"I think I'll write the papers, tell them the truth."
She gives his fingers a squeeze. "Thanks for coming.
It was really nice to meet you[.]" And later,
driving away from the home, he's glad
that he came. She's still as pleasant as ever.
That bitter-sweet, folksy humour runs like a lightening thread throughout the book. There are also a handful of sonnets scattered about that demonstrate Currie's command of form.
Epiphany relies on revelation interrupting the quotidian, a kind of ecstasy, and in Currie's work that process is reflected in the language itself. Readers anticipating the soaring lyrical voice won't find it here: this is a collection full of draft beer instead of champagne, cheap bars instead of salons. Like Al Purdy and Alden Nowlan—both of whom make appearances here—Currie writes in plain language, the diction and cadences of ordinary people as they work to understand a world at once heartbreaking and joyful. Those already familiar with Currie's body of work will find him in fine form; those new to his epiphanic poetry will discover a strong introduction to an important prairie voice.