1693 A poet’s light touch

Blue Communion
by Sean Arthur Joyce

Victoria: Ekstasis Editions, 2023
$23.95 / 9781771714884

Reviewed by Gary Geddes


In “Words on the Wing,” Sean Arthur Joyce elegantly poses the question many poets face when they decide to sit down to write something: “How light must my touch be / not to snap bone, lose an eye, / crush an airy breast?” It’s an important consideration, one that Jean-Paul Sartre also pondered long ago, when he argued that no matter how difficult or terrible a subject it must be presented with “an essential lightness.” Sartre did not always achieve the lightness he recommended and admired, either in art or in life. So it’s not surprising that a poet as fine as Joyce might occasionally fall short of that mark, trying to address the violence and viciousness we have to deal with in ourselves and in the world we see around us.

On the other hand, it must also be asked, what is more important and pressing than to labour over than something we feel passionately about? This is one of the dilemmas and challenges Joyce boldly confronts in his work, whether he’s writing prose about the orphans and unfortunate children shipped into virtual slavery in the colonies by an uncaring England in his important non-fiction book, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest (Radiant Press, 2014) or struggling with the ethics of pandemic lockdowns and environmental degradation in his new book of poems, Blue Communion.

Art (Sean Arthur) Joyce of New Denver

The more passionate we feel about events and situations we find ourselves witnessing or involved in, the more difficult achieving that essential lightness is. Joyce has an engagingly light touch when he writes about the perils or beauties of the natural world, in poem after poem, whether it’s “forests candling in the bone throat of summer” or tracking the aerial choreography of a dragonfly:

Turquoise-flecked needle, soft
stitcher of summer gardens.
Cautious orbits prowl
my hat, the gyre
narrowing, narrowing

Red stiletto, rain-sheened wings,
white jaws moving,
monologue from the pulpit
of seared raspberry leaf.

Facing the contemporary Yeatsian vision of a planet and civilization in steady decline, he has more difficulty, shifting from contemplative meditation or celebration of nature to what resembles the righteous anger of the Old Testament prophet: “Better to become / an avenging angel / riding the tsunami / bareback.” Indeed, there are numerous biblical references throughout Joyce’s work: he equates the trucker’s convoy in Ottawa with the seven angels at Judgment Day in the Book of Revelation; and strikes a deft blow at the perverse trickle-down theory of economics: “In economics, what trickles down is blood. / In the war of the worlds, which Earth, / exactly, will the meek inherit?”

While I don’t share Joyce’s view that the handling of the Ottawa fiasco has the mark of Cain, I can applaud the artistry and acoustics at work here:

Winter clouds boil black over halls of power,
Parliament Hill so empty it echoes
the prime minister’s footsteps—utterly
alone, marked like Cain for the bile
and brimstone of history’s torment.
Our bridge home a superstructure
of truck trailers spanning the horizon

from sea to sleepwalking sea.

Art Joyce

How do you best express anger and outrage in verse without becoming pedantic? Satire is one way. I think it was Ben Jonson who said, concerning satire, that there are some who use the broadsword to bludgeon their opponent to death; and there are others who prefer the fine rapier to sever the head at the neck, leaving it in place, smile intact. Pope and Dryden were masters of poetic satire. I can’t remember whom Max Beerbohm had in mind when he penned the line, “He writes with a fine steel pen, not a sputtering plume.” While the invective in Blue Communion avoids both broadsword and sputtering plume, it might have been stronger if delivered in the voice of a more individualized narrator or with a more rigorously imagined target.

I do share Joyce’s feelings of anger and helplessness confronting what often seems to be an endgame. While he struggles, like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, with the seemingly uncontrollable decline in civility and common sense, the crushing weight of present and past, he is also equally aware of “a poet’s / frail, aching reach across the void” and the whirlpool’s tug toward muteness and silence.

That’s when the anger shifts in this carefully crafted book to a more engaging, personal mode, tender observations of self and others, an elegy for a dying friend who calls to say “I’ll see you out among the stardust,” memories locked in a dead mother’s wedding ring, casting himself and other writers as “undertakers of memory,” tenderly pondering his sleeping beloved — a wondrous wounded bird and maker of exquisite boeuf bourguignon — the burden of his own self-indulgent melancholy, and acknowledgement that he is a creature of shifting moods and strong passions — “ Brother of ripping gale / and breath that barely lifts / a hair.”

And a final redemptive note in one of the most moving and exquisite poems in Blue Communion, where the organ-base of recurring consonants (l, s, t, m and v) provides the auditory foundation for his profoundly modest and sibilant observation:

I am learning the virtue
of silence. It has taken me
a lifetime, and still
I am a novice.

I have come to believe that reviews and literary criticism are seldom more than an attempt to give an objective account of a subjective experience, so what I have to say here must come with a loud caveat emptor: buyer beware. Fortunately, Sean Arthur Joyce’s poems, at their best, bring to mind the wise words of the late John Berger, art critic turned novelist and short story writer: “Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate . . . There is nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.”

And for that, we can all be grateful.

Art Joyce


Gary Geddes

Gary Geddes has written and edited more than fifty books of poetry, fiction, drama, non-fiction, criticism, translation and anthologies and been the recipient of a dozen national and international literary awards, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Americas region), the Lt.-Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, and the Gabriela Mistral Prize from the government of Chile. His most recent books are The Resumption of Play (Quattro Books, 2016), Medicine Unbundled: A Journey Through the Minefields of Indigenous Health Care (Heritage House, 2017), The Ventriloquist: Poetic Narratives from the Womb of War (Rock’s Mills Press, 2022), and The Oysters I Bring to Banquets (Guernica, 2022). Editor’s note: Gary Geddes has also reviewed books by Susan Glickman and William New for The British Columbia Review. As well, his book Medicine Unbundled is reviewed by Mary-Ellen Kelm and The Ventriloquist by Art Joyce. Gary Geddes lives on Thetis Island.


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

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