#766 Home truths and away truths

In Formless Circumstance: Poems from the Road and Home
by Trevor Carolan

Victoria: Ekstasis Editions, 2019
$23.95 / 9781771713306

Reviewed by Paul Falardeau


“All busy in the sunlight/ the flecks did float and dance/ and I was tumbled up with them/ in formless circumstance.” So sings the late, great Leonard Cohen, Canada’s poet of the heart. The song, “Love Itself,” is commonly interpreted as a distillation of a Tathagata Zen teaching. Cohen describes the journey the soul goes on, finding connection and oneness; a return to centre. It is apt then, that Trevor Carolan, a friend of Cohen’s late in life, chose to take the name for his latest collection this song. In Formless Circumstance collects poems into sections of work written at home and abroad, in a process that is itself a journey and a return to centre. In it are some of his finest work to date, as Carolan continues to refine his sense of awareness and keen writing decades into a career in letters.

Trevor Carolan has been a fixture of the Vancouver literary scene since the 1960s. After getting his start in San Francisco as a young journalist, Carolan was a student of Beat poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. A Dharma bum like his mentors, his life has been shaped by travel and Eastern philosophy. At the same time, his work has long explored eco-consciousness and a “sense of place” that is rooted in the Pacific Northwest and its cool, temperate rainforests. Now settling into the role of elder, Carolan’s newest work explores these two modes of being, the road and home, to build a sense of the world in 2020 through their combined encounter. Like the Taoist principle of Yin and Yang, Carolan shows that these two states exist in seeming contradiction. The road is kinetic, always new, exciting, fresh. Yet home finds Carolan still and subdued, immersing himself in deep connections to place. These two halves may seem to be opposite, but there is more to them than meets the eye.

Trevor Carolan. Photo by Edina Balint, The Cascade

Carolan’s writing and work have kept him on the road. From his earliest days reporting on rock stars like Janis Joplin to completing a PhD in Australia, and travelling extensively through Europe and Asia, Carolan has produced several books that collect the work of authors from South and Southeast Asia and has made a career exploring the various writing traditions from around the Pacific Ring, as different as they are connected. His novel, The Pillowbook of Dr. Jazz (Ekstasis, 2006) recollects his own travels in some of these places. In Formless Circumstance finds Carolan back at it, trekking along the road to heaven. From California to Hawai’i, Ireland to Australia, with stops in Bali, Bangkok, and Paris in between.

In poetry, Carolan’s strength is his ability to take the simple — the small moments, the little conversations, the fleeting glimpse — and draw from them a clarity of mind that he then wraps in a coat of tawny verse. It is a formula that allows a reader to delve deep into his words. For example, while travelling in rural Ireland, he observes, “The idea of happiness/ on the farm in Cavan/ is dry weather and/ bringing in the silage.” Though it seems a world away, Carolan later details the spreading of manure on his own home gardens. The landscape may change, but the feeling is the same. Regardless of where we are, what makes us happiest is often slowing down and savouring the moment, doing the work that is in front of us and paying attention to our surroundings.

Later, in Manchuria, in another rural scene in “Long Black Cars,” Carolan notes that, “In the fields, farmers of thirty centuries stand in rows of corn/ chest high, straightening up, looking on as high officials/ surge to the capital.” He goes on to suggest that there is “Nothing new in three thousand years.” These farmers exist on a knife’s edge of two worlds in the rapidly growing economic giant, China, where Carolan suggests the widening gap between rich and poor now seems to span centuries. Yet, there is also some healing in these words. The ancestors of these folks have always farmed and still do today, so some things remain unchanged. Corruption of power is not new either. Both of these poems illustrate Carolan’s understanding of the way of things. What seem like opposites – locations and lifestyles — contain a bit of their opposing force within them.

If travelling and being at home feel like opposites, Carolan confirms that this is untrue. Returning to the lens of Yin and Yang, these can be seen as sets of complementary forces, not opposing, but driving each other. Away and home are just one example of this. The perspective Carolan achieves in travel shapes the idea of home, and his experiences abroad enrich him. His travels eventually lead home, a place of connection and detail that grounds him and reveals new details about the wider world. In fact, we see that the turning of this wheel begins to produce something for the person at the centre of it. In Maui, for example, Carolan writes of quiet, slow days with his wife. “That’s the beauty of getting old together./ We read the paper…we look at each other, wistful dharma bums/ and shrug, not quite caring enough/ to drop it all,/ run after even one more thing.” A state of contentment washes over the mind anchored in the present.

Trevor Carolan. Photo by Mike Wakefield

Across the Pacific, at home, Carolan gardens, picks mushrooms, ruminates on salmon medicine, and plays Tai Chi. In his own words, he writes:

John Clark leads us in past waterfalls,
The way he’s done for forty years
Through Devil’s Club, valerian root,
     to learn the herb-picking on the mount,
     This pocket meadow the Grizzlies love,

         paying acute attention
                 To simply everything.
     Suddenly we’re here.

This “here-ness” defines Carolan’s work. Attention to detail and an unwillingness to rush allows him to savour what is in front of him. This does not change based on location: it is the vortex and the ever present mantra at the centre of his work. The new and the familiar are two sides of the same coin when experienced with a present mind.

While at home, this presentness does look different than on the road. That’s the point. Here, the sense of interconnectedness that emanates from Carolan’s work could only come from a lifetime of being in a place. The ordinary is imbued with the memory of a lifetime of reflection, which can also be a place we call “home.” “Home’s the forest undergrowth,/ the margins — mountain softwood, fjord shore,” remarks Carolan, watching common black-capped chickadees, “more and more you get to love the ordinary/ the everydayness.”

The presentness of here is sometimes misrepresented as banality, but Carolan binds himself to the ordinary with a sense of reverence and affection. In “Mushroom Mirabilis,” he recants some of the lore and practice of hunting for wild mushrooms. Sometimes it is “a carpet of forest mushrooms,/ fresh, not a worm in town,” but sometimes you come up empty-handed. Again, the universe gives and takes, but this wild space is never without something to offer one with eyes and ears open:

Red stumps, tiny firs, bare limbs
a late yellow warbler in young cedar;
that’s all.
Higher up the slopes
where the space and the light are holy,

November moss is a sutra;
rarely mushrooms here.
But it’s good to offer thanks
for the swell eats down below.

Trevor Carolan

The connection to place becomes spiritual, built by layers of experience and memory. Though this contrasts with the often visceral and immediate reality of being abroad in a new place, what emerges is life well-lived and a self well-explored.

The poem “Where the space and light are holy” returns the reader to the titular Cohen quote. Carolan, amongst his travels, makes a stopover on the Greek island of Hydra. There, he visits the one-time residence of the late Cohen, where he finds “Lemons hang in the trees over walls/ nearby, figs ripening early,/ fragrant orange blossoms/ and the peerless blue Gulf beyond.” The place is another connection. For Carolan, it is a remembrance of a hero of sorts, and of a mentor. It is another home away, even if he does not stay there. It is a reminder of the spirit that Cohen embodied, and of the work that Carolan still pursues. Cohen understood the soul’s journey: when it is at rest and when it must leave. After all, life and death are complimentary too, not separate, but one.

Carolan finishes the poem by noting his understanding that Cohen, too, was, “always moving, not missing where the/ waves were breaking:”

this Greek Isle
prelude to the dharma trail that linked us
ephemerally, like the sea mist that leaves no scar
between Poros and Sparta.

Wild penstemon, yellow aster
These lonely, rocky cliffs of love.
Epharisto for this journey,
Om shalom


Paul Falardeau

Paul Falardeau is a poet, essayist, brewer and most recently, an English teacher, living in Vancouver, a city on the unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, whom he offers respect and gratitude. He is a graduate of University of the Fraser Valley and Simon Fraser University. He has published in Pacific Rim Review of BookssubTerrain, and Cascadia Review, and he contributed an essay to Making Waves: Reading B.C. and Pacific Northwest Literature (Anvil Press, 2010).


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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