With Justin Trudeau saying that “We need poets to change the world,” * it’s a good time to think about the Canadian poets that are changing the world. We can start with Lorna Crozier. If you’re an American (US American), the sad truth is that you may not have heard of her. If you have a global consciousness that encompasses Canada, however, you won’t need me to tell you:
- That she’s widely celebrated in Canada, a recipient of the Governor’s General Award in Poetry, “one of Canada’s most read and most honoured poets…[whose poems] become a part of the reader’s permanent memory.”** and “one of the most original poets alive.”*** I believe that last description is not hyperbole. But read on and judge for yourself.
- That her poems are funny, gorgeous, beautifully crafted, intelligent, new, telling, completely in the moment and our era and also universal and timeless. Engaged in the world and the things that matter, but never polemical. She writes and has spoken widely on animal rights, poverty, the importance of wilderness (she collaborated with world-renowned photographer Ian McAllister (executive director of Pacific Wild).on The Wild in You: Voices from the Forest and the Sea).
If you don’t know Lorna Crozier’s work, below is my short review of her 2008 collection, The Blue Hour of the Day. The review was written for the 2010 Veterinary Medicine and Literature Conference at Ontario Veterinary College, Guelph, Ontario, and is thus more animal-oriented than the book itself (my post was first published in our Veterinary Medicine and Literature blog). To get a glimpse of Crozier as a reader and person, check out the “Five Favourites” piece she wrote about selecting her favorite pieces in our Animal Companions, Animal Doctors, Animal People anthology. For a full picture of Crozier’s amazing breadth, craft, and originality, visit her website, http://www.lornacrozier.ca/.
The Blue Hour of the Day. By Lorna Crozier. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007. 252 pp. Paper $22.99.
“Non-human animal” – that’s what we say, these days, to show we know that a simple “animal” refers not only to “them,” but to all of us. No such qualified terms are needed in Lorna Crozier’s world. “Animals” in all their manifestations – two-footed or four, serpentine or feral; crawling out of the sea, grazing in the pasture, or dancing on the sand – are vividly present throughout the poems in Crozier’s wonderful The Blue Hour of the Day, a selection from eight major collections of her work over a distinguished career.
Where animals appear in these poems – which is on almost every page – it’s rarely for Crozier to contemplate anything as distant as our relationship with them. Instead, they give form to our own desire, delight, devotion, or sense of loss. “What Comes After” begins:
I am my own big dog.
Walk, and I’m at the door;
eat, and I take what I offer,
lie down, and I curl on the floor,
my heavy head between my paws…
As in Denise Levertov’s “Talking to Grief” (“Ah, grief, I should not treat you / like a homeless dog”) the dog is the – dogification? – of loss, but the poem’s dogness is so true that it honors both the real canines in our lives, and what we make of them.
These are poems teeming with life and its constant transformations, a lush shape-shifting where the fox travels across the night and “One minute he’s a cat, the next a coyote” (“It Is Night”). The heart is “a winter hare. Soft-pawed and quick” (“Remember the Heart, Little Mole”); a snake is “the first saxophone / in the world” (“The Start of the Blues”); the soul is “bright-eyed / and feline, each paw placed/so carefully” (“Evolution in Moonlight”). Light – another constant presence – is also physical (in this case, equine!), needing a “shape to move inside, / a likeness tawny and thick-maned” (“Apocrypha of Light”).
Crozier’s metaphors are no mere literary device to show how two disparate things are alike, but the rich reality revealed by her glorious imagination. In the whimsical and memorable series, “The Sex Lives of Vegetables”, even vegetables are sentient and sensual. I urge you to read “Cauliflower” or “Brussels Sprouts” aloud tonight while you prepare dinner.
Like that time of day the book is named for, the creatures in The Blue Hour of the Day are always on the verge of turning into something else, being and becoming their inner and other selves one paw or mouth at a time. When you read this book, you will know again why the word “animal” has its origins in “anima – breath, soul”. You’ll also understand something new about poetry, the tame, and the wild, and have had much pleasure in the process.
If a Poem Could Walk
It would have paws, not feet,
four of them
to sink into the moss
when humans blunder up the path.
Or hooves, small ones,
leaving half-moons in the sand.
Something to make you stop
what kind of animal this is,
where it came from, where it’s going.
It draws nearest when you are most alone.
You lay red plums on your blanket,
a glass of cool cider, two sugar cubes,
knowing it is tame and wild –
the perfect animal –
knowing it will stop for nothing
as it walks
with its four new legs
right off the page
A short anecdote that is a reminder that the best poets can also be the most kind and generous human beings (a counter-example to the full-of-themselves fellows we sometimes meet at poetry conferences). Saturday morning at the 2010 Veterinary Medicine and Literature Conference, we got a call that the scheduled reader for our big-hall event that evening was seriously ill and couldn’t make the trip up to Canada from the US. Lorna and the equally luminous poet, Molly Peacock**** (Canada and the US both get to claim her), had read already, and also participated in conference sessions – they had done their part, and more, and were looking forward to a relaxed evening of listening to someone else up on the stage.
But they put their heads together to save our evening session, and what they came up with was the two of them reading their favorite poems by the missing poet (along with a few of their own that harmonized), in a funny, moving, lively back-and-forth that brought the audience to their feet.
What I saw that night was better than anything that could have been planned – two friends, world-class poets at the top of their game, open-heartedly giving the audience another poet’s work. And incidentally, saving the day for me, OVC Dean Dr. Elizabeth Stone, and our conference coordinator Tara O’Brien who had received the dread phone call, as well as the people who had traveled from near and far expecting a capstone to their conference experience.
Justin Trudeau was right. We have poets who are changing the world. Two of them, at least, are in Canada.
* Thanks to Jane Eaton Hamilton for writing about Trudeau on poets in her blog, to Carolyn Marie Souaid for sharing the letter that Hamilton cites, and to Kathryn Kirkpatrick for sharing Hamilton’s post!
***Books in Canada
****I also want to thank Molly Peacock for introducing me, a typical parochial US American, to Lorna Crozier, person and poet.