These are northern poems—scraps from the end of winter, out of a landscape of hard snow and mud, where “sewers plume,” tulips—and other hopeful, bright things—are “nipped by frost,” and sidewalks are still “gravelly” with road sand in spring. In Claire Kelly’s debut full collection, northern is a moral country, too, in which pedestrians avoid touching—“collision being/ the true failure,” “daily drama is avoided,” (though the “odd” chicken is pecked to death by siblings), dreams of flight end in an awakening “encased in lead,” and “thoughts are “more decorative than necessary.” It’s a place of “choked” expectations, of limited tolerance or empathy or imagination. The “knight’s singing blade” of our romantic notions is reduced to “a Tom Sawyer penknife that sticks and needs oiling.”
For a poet, this cold and stunted country is potentially limiting. But Claire Kelly—who, I see, has been nominated for the CBC Poetry Prize—spit-polishes its imagery and shakes it down for its parsimonious beauty. A “skinny branch fallen” is seen at first as “a banded snake—aquamarine and ash.” Crows with “ember-charred throats,” wearing “dress-/shoes that pinch” call “The show must go on.” Apollo shows up at the harness track. One of my favourite poems in this collection is “As an October caterpillar is late,” in which a passer-by “humming Sweet Caroline” detonates such a restlessness in the speaker that she implores “Let his body pull apart//other seams. Tear out the train tracks. Cut/the long leads of dogs so they can dash about…” Even if passion will take us only to “an almost other town,” we can enjoy its dismantling of our too-pedestrian habits.
“Maunder” is a pejorative term for meandering speech. In this grudging landscape, where everything should have a pragmatic, immediate purpose, to maunder is to go against the grain or flow, at the risk of, at best, being ignored by a “shrewd congregation,” and at worst, perhaps, ground down to the detritus that litters the poems’ imagery. Kelly shows us, however, the gleanings that can only be found by following apparently purposeless mental and geographical paths. And what a lot of varieties of traveling we see in these poems: on trains and buses and especially on foot. The four seasons, personified, ride city buses.
The northern hard-headedness speaks even here: the easy meanings of history and communication and transcendence are impossible. The poet reminds herself or us, “don’t ever trust the dead” and notes “language has failed you.” Patterns are identified as products of a dubious evolutionary inheritance. Fog, frost, palimpsests point to erasure. And in perhaps the most northern metaphor of romantic pairing I’ve ever read, the poet suggests to a lover: “We can be two cans/lined up and shot off/a wooden fence/that miraculously/fall and settle/next to each other….”
Yet following the breadcrumbs of the series of wry non-sequiturs this “wool-gathering” turns up, we recognize the pleasures of our own maunderings. “Stop me if you’ve not heard this one,” the poet says, but we want to continue along these associative meanderings. The pleasure is that of the maze: of finding new turnings, not blocked yet by too much knowing; of lollygagging with the nerdy friend who knows about ponds and predator-shadows, Foley artists and Miss Havisham and Olive and Popeye.
The poems in Maunder don’t really maunder, but invite us to follow the almost-invisible “compression” of “padded snow,” the signs/ of erosion under our boots” that say: our thoughts are not quite as lonely as we fear.
by Claire Kelly
Palimpsest Press, 72pp., $18.95
Karen Hofmann has published fiction and poetry in several literary magazines, including Prairie Fire. A first collection of poetry, Water Strider, was published by Frontenac House in 2008 and shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay prize. Her first novel, After Alice, was published by NeWest Press in 2014, and a second novel will be published in 2017. Karen teaches literature, composition, and creative writing at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. Her writing explores relationships, especially of family, and the landscapes of the BC Interior.