#811 Care, craft … couplets!
by Jennica Harper
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2019
$18.00 / 9781772141405
Reviewed by John Pass
There’s a lot to like in Jennica Harper’s new book of poems. I was struck first with how seamlessly she stitches straightforward colloquial language into fairly rigorous, but pleasingly transparent, form. My wife suggests the book-length sequence of untitled poems are mini sonnets. I was a good way into my reading before noticing their consistent 8-line-in-4-couplets pattern. It may be instructive to consider the 8 lines akin to the opening octave of a Petrarchan sonnet, its rough framing of the material before the philosophizing, resolving sestet.
Philosophizing is mercifully absent in Harper’s approach, which is the modernist strategy of embedding theme or meaning in well-chosen, metaphorically potent objects, events. She manages this with exceptional aplomb. And her couplets, breaking and beginning, haltingly seeking, are in intriguing kinship and disharmony with those making tidy conclusions in a Shakespearean sonnet.
I often think of her lying there, mute, teeth
safe in a locker somewhere. Body on pause,
the weeks X’d off the calendar, a blur. All I
could do was hold her hand, purple & plump
with fluid. Me, sore from my pratfall in the
Halloween aisle of Wal-Mart—bruised ribs,
yes, but more from lying winded on the freshly
waxed floor, as D. looked down on me, unsure.
Harper’s dying mother, and her daughter, D., are paired with the poet throughout Bounce House; her attention and feelings bounce about between them from sadness to irritability to fear to joy to hope to relief to regret. And there are temporal “bounces” too, back and forth in time, to Harper’s own childhood and adolescence, her mother’s, her daughter’s―the precarious future. Couplets are a superb formal expression of these mother/daughter pairings. Look at the subtle parallels of poet’s mother and mother poet “lying”, mother “mute” in the opening line of the first couplet, poet “winded” (by the fall, but possibly also by the waiting/writing) in the opening line of the last―the pauses and pushes as the relationships unfold.
There is a wonderfully musical underscore. The opening interior rhyming (her, blur, purple) sounding through the fuller central set (sore, more, floor) alights on the discombobulated chime of the last word, “unsure”. The irony of the mother’s teeth “safe in a locker somewhere” and the humour of the pratfall in the Halloween aisle of Wal-Mart— surreal, but certainly true, are bound up in details you couldn’t make up, nuggets a skilled poet knows to nab. And the effortless, natural, inevitable-once-we-get-there, reversal/parallel of D. looking down on her mother at the end, not safe. . . but not dying either, yet. . . that dawning (prophetic) initiation of D. into our unsure existence, is masterfully realized.
These unobtrusive but satisfying subtleties and inter-complexities of form and feeling are found throughout Bounce House, some intentional certainly, but most, I’m sure, the result of an experienced and attentive poet’s intimacy with language, emotion, and the “waxed floor” of the material world. They are gifts poetry gives back to a poet in stride. Gifts these poems pass on to the reader.
John Pass’s poems have been published in Canada, the US, the UK, Ireland and the Czech Republic. Stumbling in the Bloom (Oolichan Books, 2005) won the Governor General’s Award and crawlspace (Harbour, 2011) won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. His most recent book is This Was The River (Harbour, 2019). An edition of his poems translated into Czech is forthcoming this year from Protimluv, Ostrava. He lives with his wife, writer Theresa Kishkan, near Sakinaw Lake on BC’s Sunshine Coast.
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