1443 How to live in history
The Last Show on Earth
by Yvonne Blomer
Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2022
$20.00 / 139781773860770
Reviewed by gillian harding-russell
Against a backdrop of an environmental crisis, Yvonne Blomer in The Last Show on Earth writes poems that let us listen in on personal sorrow inseparable from love for a son with his unique needs, grief for a mother’s death as well as meditative experiences during her ventures into natural and literary worlds.
Although the circus imagery occurs mainly in the title section that focuses on the Anthropocene, that imagery as well as the bullfight infiltrates the mood and imagery of other sections in the collection as well.
In the first section, “Querencia” — which refers to the area in an arena where the bull takes a defence position from the matador — we glimpse the unfamiliar world that the speaker inhabits with her husband and special-needs son, and intriguingly we are not always certain whether it is the mother or the son who feels most driven into this defence position. In “Things to chew on,” the eating metaphor is cleverly used to express a mother’s almost physical first love for her baby:
Oh child, I would eat you up,
nibble even when I don’t mean to,
as if you are a bowl of almonds
left out. I scoop, finger-stir, chew on you
with my mamma teeth.
The metaphor shifts as the child’s inability to latch without biting on the mother’s nipple becomes a source for their separation: “Bottle-fed-baby, / those teeth split us.” As we soon discover, this baby with the enormous hunger or hyperphagia (the title of another poem, “Hyperphagia”) and needs to match that hunger will later be diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome.
In the section “Horology,” which treats the subjectivity of time, its elusive passing as well as the tricks of endurance it plays on the mind, the poem “The invited guest enters your psychological space” treats the speaker’s anxiety in the face of the stranger’s entry into her household in terms both droll and delightful. After the speaker’s reported words “Please leave your shoes by the door,” we overhear her humorous internal and bracketed quip, “(you may wonder if some other tenant will/ have removed them before you leave),” which perhaps reflects her potential unease at even an invited guest’s judgement. Subsequently, the speaker projects the guest’s thoughts in all their unreality. After the single-verse stanza “What more to show you?” which points us to what is ahead with the flourish of a circus master, we are led into this tableau of circus funhouse with its psychological overtones:
Pardon? Ah yes
that warm glow is my husband.
My son — you can see, is light and dust and that high-
pitched giggle. You will bump into him often.
Mind the sharp corners of dog toys
and old worrisome arguments —
As in a hall-of-mirrors, an unstable atmosphere where the real seems somehow distorted registers the speaker’s vulnerability and fear of the guest’s potential lack of understanding for her loved ones. Accordingly, the circus theme carries into the neighbour poem “Tent,” in which the son is allowed to stay up while on a camping trip but then, hyperactive, cannot go to sleep. From initial anger, the father’s voice softens to understand his son’s despair after his words, “I just want to kill myself, the boy sobs out.”
I listen to the sibilants; listen to the voices around me,
so close I could stroke the hair of a head, but for the thin layers between us.
In the beautiful and redemptive closing verses, “the thin layers” that refer to tent material and sleeping gear also register the psychological “layers” that both clothe and comfort and separate family members from each other.
In “Backwards We Travelled,” which applies the horology theme in reverse, the poems present ventures into the literary world, and in the title section “The Last Show on Earth,” the poems combine both literary works and the natural world during our troubled Anthropocene. One of my favourite poems, “How to live in history,” is not about nature though it digs deep into nature to talk about language:
It is a refugee and an immigrant: language —
abandoned, lost, sunk into bone, burnt in fire, scraped
like residue, licked clean by wolves and used again.
Moving from language to poetry, “Language in a line of poetry wants to tell you the truth of the matter” in the manner a mother might have, “her forehead pressed to yours, saying: Listen, dear, listen” and you do because “you feel like a child and language is a family.” There is a communality of thinking in Blomer’s view of an interactive nature and the language that holds humanity together.
In the final and title section “The Last Show on Earth,” ekphrastic poems — such as those inspired by naturalist artist Robert Bateman’s painting “Above the Rapids — Gulls and Grizzly” and by photographs such as Adrian Steirn’s photograph “Saved by Compassion,” and Eilo Elvinger’s “Polar pas de deux” — proliferate. As well as wide-ranging sources for inspiration, there is a playfulness in Blomer’s verse as she builds on literary forms and adapts them to her purpose. I laughed at the extra couplet in “Sad sonnet with an extra couplet” which, as the title warns us, contains an extra couplet to make up for the missing Petrarchan turn at the end of the octave. The virtuoso attempt at a glosa borrowing lines from Rilke’s “The Ninth Elegy” for the poet’s son’s fifteenth birthday (“Reading Rilke on my son’s fifteenth birthday”) is tender, and the penultimate poem “Our one blue bowl” in which the blue bowl serves as a metaphor for our earth sheathed in water and sky evokes the timeless cup and bowl imagery in Omar Khayyam’s The Rubaiyat.
Yvonne Blomer’s The Last Show on Earth is a book with hidden treasures and many delights scattered throughout its generous 140 pages.
gillian harding-russell is poet, editor, and reviewer. She has five poetry books published, most recently Uninterrupted (Ekstasis Editions, 2020) and In Another Air (Radiant 2018), both shortlisted for Saskatchewan Book Awards. Also, she has six chapbooks published, the latest Megrim (The Alfred Gustav Press, 2021). Her work has been anthologized in nineteen poetry collections and published in journals across Canada. She received a Ph.D. from the University of Saskatchewan, completing her dissertation on postmodern Canadian poetry.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. 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.
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