Poetry Reviews by Emily McGiffin

Rodney DeCroo, Allegheny, BC (Gibsons: Nightwood, 2012). Paperbound, 96 pp., $18.95.

Brenda Schmidt, Grid (Regina: Hagios, 2012). Paperbound, 80 pp., $17.

From boyhood memories to middle age, the poems in Rodney DeCroo’s debut Allegheny BCcollection chart a journey across several landscapes: the polluted industrial outskirts of Pittsburgh, the oil towns of northeast B.C., and Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The glimpses of these worlds are compelling, the poems laden with grief, remorse, and longing, yet never with sentimentality or self-pity. These are tough, detailed, tell-it-like-it-is snapshots of a world where poverty, violence, and neglect rub shoulders with love and loyalty, and the beauty of nature shines resiliently between steel mills and oil fields. DeCroo, an acclaimed singer/songwriter, tells a powerful story and his mastery of rhythm and cadence is evident throughout the collection. That both the title and cover image contain a river is apt: the rhythm and narrative of these poems carried me along like a strong current. Structurally, these are tight poems, crafted, for the most part, in three-to-five-line stanzas. Throughout, DeCroo’s language is lively, full of keen observation and sharp, relevant detail. His skilled enjambments play up double meanings, internal rhymes, emphases, and dramatic pauses within the lines. Take the closing stanzas of “The Hunting Knife”:

his knowledge passed on. His hand
on my back, the scooped guts steaming
in the snow. We carried the slack corpse
out of the woods and set it in the bed

of the truck parked just off the road. My father
slammed the tailgate shut and walked
toward the cab. Good thing it didn’t snow,
was all he said on the long drive home.

The poem describes the speaker’s experience gutting his first deer at the age of thirteen, but is as much a poem about his father, whose hunting knife now rests on the speaker’s desk. In small, carefully chosen details, the speaker reveals this man as he passes on his knowledge: a hand on the back in lieu of words about the seriousness of the event. Years later, the knife arrives in a parcel “like a small coffin” without a note.

Overall, this skillful first collection succeeds in conveying a narrator living close to life, navigating its hardships while finding beauty and kindness in unexpected places. By turns cold and dark then bright with hope, Allegheny, BC is a book that, to borrow an image from its pages, aims for the heart, then squeezes the trigger.

Unlike Allegheny, BC, which spans a continent and several decades, Grid is firmly setGrid in Schmidt’s northern Saskatchewan home. Throughout the collection, Schmidt uses elements of the prairie landscape— often cold and sparse but equally alive with birds—to depict the lives and emotions of characters grappling with the challenges of middle age: a thyroid gone haywire, conversations about funeral plans, a loved one in a nursing home. As the title suggests, Grid, Schmidt’s fourth collection, is a passage through this landscape; its subsections— Midway, Corridor, Road Conditions, and Grid—echo the themes of movement and travel, and roads are a frequent subject throughout. Yet the grid—that network of roads that sections the rural Prairies into square-mile parcels—is not the way to get somewhere fast. This is a book of back roads and detours, of places and creatures that only those who pay close attention will notice. Like the Prairies, this is not a collection that gives itself away: the true beauty of this book lies in subtleties that may not be obvious at first glance. Take Road Conditions, for example. Ostensibly a suite of poems centring on highway driving made wretched by winter storms, a closer reading finds that the dominant theme here is the imminent death of a relative somewhere far away and the emotions and ruminations on mortality that ensue. Corridor, containing a nine-part long poem, describes a series of outings, each section centred on a different species: ovenbird, tundra swan, bog rosemary, black bear. It closes on the image of the nature photographer compelled, yet ultimately failing, to capture the beauty she sees in the world around her: “And again I bend, killing // batteries, trying to capture all this / life, whatever’s emerging, dying, lost.” In contrast to the titular themes of movement, this desire to pause and capture a moment and the emotion housed there recur throughout the book. The ekphrastic poems in the collection further express the author’s love of still images and her other vocations of painting and photography.

Despite the attention to detail evident throughout the collection, fresh, original language doesn’t rank among its principal strengths. Certain poems recount small instances of life but lack the snapping imagery, insight, or metaphor that would deliver these incidents from the ordinary to a deeper sense of how exquisite the moments are.

…My traction depends
on the salt and sand

spread by the driver
of that big yellow truck.

Its red lights flash high
above the swirl ahead.

I slow and follow. Thank God
for the Department of Highways.

(“Small Song for a Slippery Road”)

The plodding rhythm and language leave me waiting to be carried toward the depth of thankfulness the speaker feels.

Allusion and metaphor are present in a broad sense throughout the book, yet the language is, by and large, literal. Schmidt seems more comfortable with simile than metaphor: “Her facial droop resembles a hillside / in the distant past where I stood / filling my pail with saskatoons…” (“Stroke”). The poem continues as a beautiful and moving reminiscence, but here, as elsewhere, I found myself wondering whether the constraints on the imagination imposed by the simile construct are necessary. Why cling to the literal rather than surrendering to this poignant flight of the imagination? Her face is that hillside. And, as the book’s bleak, stormy winters, and soft spring winds remind us, we are the landscapes we inhabit.

—Emily McGiffin

As in The Malahat Review, 182, Spring 2013, 87-89