Jul 15, 2013

In Firewalk, Katherine Bitney writes poems against a spectacular northern backdrop of aurora borealis conceived of as a “forest of green girls” (13), with the stag at the winter solstice standing with the sun “mov[ing] lower, into his antlers” (37), and the ever-hungry wolf watching over the animal and human kingdoms. Here elemental questions of earth and fire and wind and snow and creation figure while an epistemology in which such icons as the wolf and stag – in combination with scientific imagery such as “the cell” on a microbiological level and the “black hole” on a cosmic level – take shape in our minds.

Bitney demonstrates an ear attuned to inner rhythms that draw the reader into the trajectory of her thinking. An incantatory style dramatizes self-doubt and the limits of knowledge in the existentially inspired “Living on Tiptoe” (12). The syncopated lines reflect the advance of knowledge in a stutter of incomprehension:

So much in my head I stopped reading. There was too much in
my head I stopped listening  stopped hearing  looking.

There was too much. In my head I stopped. Hearing too much
too much listening looking. There was too much.

True knowledge seems to come from within, rather than as information drawn from the external world. The verse has a hypnotic quality that emulates prayer.

One of the most striking poems in the collection is “Wolf” (23), in which the wolf image is internalized from an external awareness of its majestic presence and danger to a state of mind that lives preternaturally on the edge:

You’ve walked with wolves all your life,
put your hands on their backs in the night,
not seeing their paws on your chest in the morning.
Not feeling their heat, the shape of wolf leg.

Something playful enters in “not seeing their dog smiles, their dance in the moonlight,” and transforms fear into something desired. A bantering suggestion in the Jungian “Don’t tell me you missed this in your dreams” takes us aback.

In “Our Lives in Winter” (35–6) Bitney contrasts “Snow drifts blue to the earth” with the smallness of our own human perspective while “the gods” “clear as stars” and “striding the worlds, oblivious of us” could “crush our roofs with their boots”:

What do we know of all this, busy with our own
quarrels in tight winter quarters.
Not much to do but card wool
and spin, sharpen swords, tell tales
into the night. . . .

As in a medieval setting, the verses that “sing, sing in the smoky halls” evoke a minstrel and the escapism of such tales. As the wolf is seen to circuit the land, “watching the house,” it “tests the air” for matters that include but are not limited to humans: “but his question is land and its game: are there hares?” Or “sheep,” “calves” and, equally pragmatically, “guns” (36). The wolf resonates as a symbol, albeit a cloaked and contradictory one, as all the best symbols must be.

“When One Person Speaks the Truth” (69) is an example of the concreteness of Bitney’s vision and mythopoeic talent. Here the one who “speaks  the truth” is seen as a hero who has travelled far to arrive at this circuitous understanding. Truth-telling, however, is conceived of as a dangerous occupation akin to breaking through the illusive transparency and dead wall of glass to a more spiritual understanding: “Be careful / where you walk, where you step when one / person speaks the truth.” Far from glorifying this truth-teller as above the ordinary man or woman, however, Bitney adds conversationally, “since you ask, yes, we have walked hard roads, all of us.” Each of us has the potential to access this truth by sorting through words to discover the truth of whatever journey we may have undertaken:

. . . You leave behind
untied knots, white space, shucked ghosts, old coats
of the mind, the spirit. Debris of language
not your own.

The poem closes with a shaman’s advice for the reader, another possible everyman truth-teller and hero: “Being clean of it, walk forward. / Walk.”

From this singular how-to poem about writing, Bitney moves in “More” (70) to larger strokes to evoke her vision of the unending creative power of the universe:

From more comes infinity   from infinity form    What tipped me
off was the snag-toothed fish of the deep deep sea    You can see
clear to their minds through their dinnerplate eyes where the
questions are written    How to live under pressure    How to eat
How to test out the shapes    How to structure the bones    How
to program the genes for the making of form

Note how skilfully Bitney, in the manner of Gwendolyn MacEwen, turns the colloquial metaphor “what tipped me off” into something literal and lovely. In this image I simultaneously visualize the rims of planets tipping in orbit and an ecstatic speaker “tipping” “off her metaphoric rocker” in awe. The line about how fish demonstrate “how to live under pressure” is another example of the wisdom and playfulness of the speaker. But most impressive is the reach of Bitney’s understanding of a uniting philosophy of love and desire and unending creativity in the universe.

In this unified collection the figurative levels of meaning radiate through select images peculiar to the northern landscape that Bitney loves and celebrates. Just as the strong rhythms and syncopated cadences draw us into the verses as a drum’s beat, a shaman’s prayer, so the images surface in our minds and take on new meaning in the scenes that the story-telling poet sets before us. This is a collection with mythopoeic power, reminiscent of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s The Shadow-Maker. 

gillian harding-russell’s third poetry collection I forgot to tell you ( Thistledown) came out in 2007. Her latest work  has been published in the anthologies That Not Forgotten (HiddenBrook Press, 2011), and Poet to Poet (Guernica, 2012) and is forthcoming in I Found It at the Movies (Guernica, 2013).

by Katherine Bitney
Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0-888001-406-1, 79 pp., $17.00 paper.

Buy Firewalk at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

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