1382 Humour, nostalgia, and pathos

Black Bears in the Carrot Field
by Linda K. Thompson

Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue Publishing, 2021
$19.95  /  9781896949840

Reviewed by Wendy Donawa

 *

Pygmy owls, rusted-out Fords, and thimble babies that never quite took: humour, nostalgia, and pathos in Black Bears in the Carrot Field

Linda K. Thompson handles her poems’ pitch-perfect narrative voice so adroitly that this reviewer is tempted to quote her wholesale, and let the poems speak for themselves. Her book’s preface is a tongue-in-cheek invocation to the Goddess of Space and Time Negotiations that sets the lyrical tone and ironic voice of her poetry. It is also the voice that unpacks her poignant nostalgia for the grey-silted, mountain-enclosed Pemberton Valley of her youth, its “clear oxbow pools, and glacial air, sharp as whiskey.”

My Story Begins (p. 12) takes the reader straight into the beauty and harshness of life in this then-isolated landscape: a closeness of family, where lost “thimble babies…, that never quite took” tell of poverty and child loss, but also of love. Tenderness toward a horse trader’s pintos “humming/ in their spotted throats: keep us, keep us” is countered by the shocking childhood memory of ropes breaking as her father’s coffin is lowered, followed by mischievous siblings who creep into an empty church, “pray loudly to the ceiling for Juicy Fruit, Oh Henrys,/ Chicken Bones, Sen-Sens”.

These disorienting moments of reversal, the breath-catching lyric and narrative leaps, keep the reader riveted through the most plain-spoken family reminiscence. When the adult children gather for Dominion Day on the Verandah (p. 14), they remember their beloved Dad among a “moonscape of trees…. tendrils of smoke curling into the river air”. Yet the narrator watching a towhee among the bushes feels “a strange urge/ to see his heart, the size of a blueberry”. Her sister says “When your morning starts/ out with a tetanus shot, the containment of the day is lost”. The land again: “green of the Sound….warbler under the salmonberry bush”. In the end, “we pass the sugar lumps, the half-and-half/ Elsie’s oatmeal clusters”.

Linda Thompson. Courtesy Alberni Valley News

Father Brought Small Gifts to Us (p. 16) recalls gifts not small at all, simple things enriched by love, from a man who “[e]xplained its perfection”: the pygmy owl, “shining gold crab apples”, Netted Gem potatoes. “We stood close by his shoulders”. The adult narrator brings this memory to the present while she grieves a present loss and “the blood moon was hidden by clouds…I had no courage to step across the dark”. Later (in the narrative time-line, as in the manuscript), a sequence of poems movingly evokes her mother, whose “years have drifted/ into a misty place” (p. 29).

As the poems move from family to Pemberton’s town and farming community, they carry similar trademarks — startling imagery and shifting discursive tones, to which she lends a chatty, folksy, hurtin’-songs voice typified by Bob’s House (pp. 19-20). Her trademark humour, tough, a tad outrageous, sly, unpacks the larky undertakings of Bob, who drags his house down the hill, “perky as a duck riding a current “ to nestle “at the foot of the rockslide” after his wife leaves the hardships of their farming life. “He missed her beside him at night, missed the cackle of her laugh, but he took it as good as he could”.

Farms in the Pemberton Valley. Photo by Mike Stewart

An eclectic concoction of characters inhabit family melodramas. In a poetry sequence, a sharp-eyed young girl deplores mishaps that land her Daddy in the clink. The gormless Mr. Carlisle, “his fresh dyed hair thin as cobweb”, is courting Ma with “store-bought food and a box of Napoleon ice cream”. A devious side-note as the child comments on Mr. Carlisle’s “poor dead wife, Ida, her dead of the ‘lectrocution like”.

Nostalgia for bygone days and friends surfaces as the speaker recalls wild double dates with Margaret (p. 40), who now lives alone “in the Cariboo raising sheep”, where the radio in the lamb-raising barn “plays tinny cowboy music, faintly, / to soothe the new mothers”. A similar poignancy pervades Gloria (p. 41) and its recall of Gloria’s irrepressible enthusiasm, “the energy/ that was busting out of her”, a poem that rollicks along, but ends with the wistful: “Didn’t we all feel happy then?”

The narrator’s colourful personal history includes visitors living and dead. Sisters: Here and There (p. 41), introduces Verna, “the dearly departed one” who drops in to watch TV. “She does that off and on.” The speaker deplores Verna’s “perfectly serviceable” old Fortrel pantsuit. “Still, she has a long death ahead of her, so you can see her point”.

Black bear and apple tree. Photo by Louise Williams

Road-trip poems chart both youth’s reckless optimism and age’s pragmatic acceptance of life’s imperfections. South on 99 (p. 22) watches her leave home. “By ’68 I’m ready to go….buy myself Judge Decker’s car, after he dies./ And one October day, the cottonwoods alight, drive south on 99.” Many years later, she and her husband are road-tripping (Buffalo in Yellowstone, pp. 46-47), on the lookout for “a big bull, you know, feeling frisky”, but “I had lots of time/ to think about old boyfriends, which I do now and then,/ when I’m feeling life is less than I had expected.” The rest of the poem unpacks a catalog of unsatisfactory boyfriends, decidedly unfrisky.

Thompson is a consummate comedian. Whether it’s the above boyfriends “like a packtrain of scurvy donkeys who could not figure out/ they were never getting any treats”, or Mr. Carlisle “pleased as if it’s the Lord Jesus himself, with his long dusty toes, come down for a spot of tea and a bite of Gramma Larkin’s No Egg Spicy Boiled Raisin Cake”, or even some of her titles (how about: Bobbi’s View from the Third Stall or Avoiding an Ex (p. 50), Thompson’s public readings have listeners falling off their chairs laughing. Her rather sonorous voice, her deadpan, ironically understated delivery, and incorrigibly offbeat sense of humour, provide the “leap”, the mid-laugh startlement, the strangeness of psychic shifts: mid-idyll, she checks the obits for the boyfriends. She muses on what articles a migrating prairie family might have left, abandoned in their hardscrabble home, ends shockingly: “Leave a birthmarked baby/ in a dresser drawer/ asleep?”

Linda K. Thompson. Photo by ©Chaisson Creative, Port Alberni

And then there are poems to break open your heart, pure lyrics that ache with awareness of time’s passing, life’s dwindling, hope’s fading. The title Who Has Not Sat Before His Own Heart’s Curtain (p. 62) says it all. The speaker of Spring Tide (p. 49) recalls the merrily rambunctious family of her youth: “I loved your family. /Loved how the played “Ah, shit” at the kitchen table/ to all hours of the night…”, but ends poignantly “How could we know? Families drift, break/ apart on the rocks….Die, waiting/ for the phone to ring”.

The elegiac loveliness of Bring This Stone to the Grave (p. 70) evokes Gwendolyn McEwan’s Dark Pines Under Water; and deserves a place in future anthologies of Canadian poetry. “Bring this stone./ You are alone and its heft will be company. …. Still, the sun across the cottonwoods that line the Lillooet/ will nearly break your heart.”

“Voice”, wrote the late, great Tony Hoagland, “can be more primary than any story or idea the poem contains, and voice carries the cargo forward to delivery….In its vital connectivity, it is capable of including both the manifold world and the rich slipperiness of human nature.”[1] Linda K. Thompson’s voice delivers her cargo of goat festivals, red-winged blackbirds, Pap’s “rolly” papers under the radio, poetry-hating border guards, and alpine meadows. She unpacks them for us. She brings us her world.

*

Wendy Donawa. Photo by Chris Hancock Donaldson

Wendy Donawa has always lived on islands. Born and raised on Vancouver Island, she spent three decades of her adult life in Barbados as student, college instructor, and museum curator. Returning to Vancouver Island, she finds the BC Coast’s salty air and the Caribbean’s easterly trade winds make equal claim on her spirit. She now lives in Victoria, grateful to be a guest on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt people. Her poems have appeared widely in poetry journals, anthologies, chapbooks, and public transport. Her first book, Thin Air of the Knowable (Brick Books, 2017) was long-listed for the Raymond Souster Award and a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award. Our Bodies’ Unanswered Questions (Frontenac House, 2021) is her second book. Lorna Crozier has called Donawa’s poems “fiery calls to action … in a world rife with inequity and injustice, this … is the kind of beacon we need…. Unwavering, uncompromising, and fiercely wise.”

*

The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and writers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

Endnotes:

[1] Tony Hoagland with Kay Cosgrove. The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice. W.W. Norton and Company Inc. New York: 2019, p. 3.

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One comment on “1382 Humour, nostalgia, and pathos

  1. So nice to read a review by someone who truly gets Linda Thompson’s artistry, humour and sensibility. I go back to this collection of poems anytime I need inspiration, and yes, what Tony Hoagland says is so apropos to Linda Thompson’s work: voice is so central and such a source of unending delight in these poems. Canadian poetry has been waiting for this voice for a long time!

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