Elemental by Kate Braid

Oct 8, 2019

Kate Braid’s 2018 book of poetry, Elemental, opens with a D. H. Lawrence quote about the energy, power and “dark sort of joy” we derive from the earthly elements that surround us. Braid goes on to explore our connectedness to the natural world, and the ways in which nature and natural materials—their properties, characteristics and mysteries—resonate in the patterns and currents of our lives. These connections have long been present in Braid’s writing, and her overlapping careers as writer, teacher, and carpenter are all represented here, with earlier writing placed alongside new poems to create a work that is both retrospective and current.

Written in five parts— “Water”, “Fire”, “Wood”, “Sky” and “Earth” —Braid begins each section with a brief autobiography as element. These short prose pieces narrate an awakening in some cases, an expanding in others, a reckoning elsewhere. For Braid, water is an all-encompassing embrace, fire is both hurtful and capable of warmth, wood is possibility, sky is powerful, generative, expansive. Of earth, she writes: “… I loved the deep rift in the earth of our street … I entered it … This is what it feels like to be a stone in the landscape of dark, to be buried and rise again …” (63) The poems that follow these autobiographies mine the character of the element they reference—in the case of “earth”, it’s supposed stability, its capacity to nurture, its forbearance, and its tendency to disrupt and ruin.

What is most compelling about this collection are Braid’s reflections on small revelations that arrive, unexpected, in brief moments when we step away from our preoccupation with technology and the compulsion to fill up all of our time. In “Listen”, she writes about quiet nights when “Bamboo sings a long song to the wind and the house sighs.” (23) In “Airplane Whine”, she catches the sudden “exotic roll of sapphire and silver” (59) that lights up the sky outside the window of the airplane, a casual glance arrested by a “cobalt and pearl panorama where fancy can wander unleased, no earplugs, no button necessary”. (59) And in “Wood Buffalo National Park” she describes a friend’s encounter with a buffalo, the deep capture of its animal gaze, “a lake, alive with everything you ever wanted to know … .” (72) This motif is recurrent throughout the collection, the small insights that tear us away from the daily and breathe fresh life into our imaginations, our hopes and our capacity to act with intention.

Taken together, the five sections of Elemental reveal Braid’s deeply reverent appreciation of the world around her. In the final poem, “You are a Traveller Standing in Front of a Mountain and Were Just Going to Say Something Important”, she considers the immensity of the natural world and our own insignificance, transience. She writes, “A small grey pebble rolls to the ground. Another traveller passes it by.” (88) She then closes the collection with a quote from Rumi about our beginnings as mineral, that we consistently forget this former state “except in early spring, when we slightly recall being green again.” (89) Braid’s writing, clear and direct, leads us back to Rumi’s spring.

Kate Braid is the author of several books of poetry, as well as non-fiction works. Her first book, Covering Rough Ground, won the 1992 Pat Lowther Memorial Award for best book of poetry by a Canadian woman poet. In 2015, she was awarded the Vancouver Mayor’s Award for the Literary Arts.

by Kate Braid
Caitlin Press Inc., 2018, 96 pages, $18

Jody Baltessen is an archivist and poet in Winnipeg.

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