1622 Out of memory’s pocket
Here at the Crux
by Leanne Boschman
New Westminster: Silver Bow Publishing, 2022
$23.95 / 9781774032312
Reviewed by Christopher Levenson
Though only her second book of poetry, Boschman’s work is by now well known, especially in BC, and deservedly so. The persona that emerges from these poems is an attractive one, low-key, and without gimmickry, for hers is a poetry of quiet, often wry, observation, imbued with a respect, even reverence, for the natural world around her and its first inhabitants and custodians, but it also embodies qualities of compassion and concern, such as in “Restless Children” for the girl hitchhiker whom she did not pick up, admiration for her mother’s courage and determination in face of a cancer diagnosis, and in “Never too late,” her awe at the physical courage and stamina of a woman who climbed El Capitan on her 70th birthday.
So too, in “Brown Woollen Slippers,” thinking of her pregnant daughter and her own approaching grandmotherhood, it is the carefully observed and remembered details, many drawn from the natural world, that recreate atmospheres. Thus “Morning Fog” shows us “How mountains acquiesce/ become silhouette,” and in “Something we would not name,” speaking of her granddaughter, she writes of:
At night, the minnow quick waves
of your breath under my hand, small breaching.
But, deft as she is with imagery drawn from the everyday world she refrains from drawing the reader’s attention to the innate symbolic qualities.
Granted, sometimes, as in “Lowland,” which depicts a perilous car journey from the Okanagan back to the coast through flooded roads and landslides, her subject matter is dramatic, nor in “Our Fathers” does she shy away from exchanging with her husband accounts of the corporal punishment inflicted on them both as children.
They were awkward, our fathers’ apologies
decades later when we were adults.
They handed us the raw pulp of their regret,
and we had to mold it into something
we could tuck into our pockets
along with the cold memories of punishment —
how when trying to fend off the blows
you also forsook affection
and the dappled sunlight of a summer afternoon.
Nevertheless, her poetic voice remains measured and intimate, more intent on truth to feeling than on drama. Like most good poets, she is more inclined to hint and suggest rather than to state. “Northern Iconography,” for instance, about a cougar attack, is a model of incremental revelation, so that only at the last line of this quasi-sonnet does the reader grasp the full situation.
Fortunately, although she is adept at making analogies between, say, gymnastics and her writing process, as in the final lines of “The Outfield” —
Mostly, she recognizes the way they sit in silence before the hoist
and clank of metal that glints above their heads,
just as she sits a long time before setting down a single line
— she never takes herself too seriously. At times she can be quietly humorous, as in the poem “Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings,” where the soggy textbook she retrieves from her knapsack has been made “the main course/ of its evening meal” by a rat:
and I find myself wondering if the rat most enjoyed
The Mind-Body Problem
or if it preferred the blandness of
Stoic Resignation to Fate
Not that all is sweetness and light, as we see in “People also ask,” which neatly skewers the mindless banality of such lists.
Unsurprisingly in a maturer poet many of Boschman’s poems involve memory, both the act of remembering, often of specific places, people, and events, and especially of loss, and the memories themselves. This in turn almost inevitably takes on the controlled meditative tone that is her greatest strength. Thus the prose poem “What’s down there” takes its starting point from the stories that her mother and her mother’s nine sisters told each other. Boschman may not break new ground thematically or in her subject matter — anyway there is always room for another good poem on any subject — but she exhibits great narrative skill.
All this is helped by her control of verse movement. Not uniquely but rarely enough among contemporary Canadian poets, she cares about cadence, verse movement, and line breaks, and hence too about how the poems sound when read aloud, and she makes skilful use of the longer line to project a strong personal voice. As a fellow poet there are instances when I might have shortened a line, removed a syllable, or chosen different line breaks in order to make it more like one of my own … but I have to recognize her intense relationship with her medium, language itself. This is made explicit in “Spelling Lessons” and in “Heritage/ Language,” which, harking back to her Ukrainian Mennonite background, starts:
Pautsche (to patter noisily through puddles)
a word that slipped out of memory’s pocket
more than forty years ago
until a spring walk reminded me
as a pebble withholds particles of earth after water
and in late summer river stones recall
a gurgling lullaby.
With Boschman the dangers of a wider, socio-political, and ecologically threatened world are most often implied rather than stated: for instance, she is obviously well aware of human responsibility for climate change. In “Lowland,” where, she notices in passing, the “roots that could have held back the water/ rotting in clear cuts,/ or burned away in wildfires,” and ends with “this unsparing season we’ve created.” But such conclusions are seen through a domestic lens and implied, in the quiet wit of:
Glint of the laurel branches after rain
a cage of branches at its base where a sparrow chirps
in self-imposed captivity.
While occasionally she ventures into myth or fantasy realms where I cannot follow her, what is most attractive is her down to earth quality. Overwhelmingly these are poems that repay slow, careful re-reading and deserve to last.
Born in London, England, in 1934, Christopher Levenson came to Canada 1968 and taught English, Creative Writing, and Comparative Literature at Carleton University from 1968 to 1999. He has also lived and worked in the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, and India. The most recent of his thirteen books of poetry are A Tattered Coat Upon a Stick (Quattro Books, 2017) and Small Talk (Silver Bow, 2022), reviewed here by Al Rempel. He co-founded Arc magazine in 1978, was its editor for the first ten years, and was for five years Series Editor of the Harbinger imprint of Carleton University Press, which published exclusively first books of poetry. He has reviewed widely, mostly poetry and South Asian literature in English, in the UK and Canada. With his wife, Oonagh Berry, Christopher moved to Vancouver in 2007 where he helped re-start and run the Dead Poets Reading Series. Editor’s note: Christopher Levenson has recently reviewed books by Isa Milman, H.C. (Hans) ten Berge, John Barton, John Pass, Rob Taylor, and Kevin Spenst.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, 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