1879 What a wonder

By Patrick Friesen

Vancouver, BC: Anvil Press, 2023
$18.00 / 9781772142167

Reviewed by Al Rempel


Patrick Friesen’s latest book, Reckoning, is a masterfully crafted, single long poem that ranges across all three senses of reckoning, weaving new themes together with familiar themes to those who have read his previous work. Reckoning: to calculate a ship’s position, also dead reckoning. Reckoning: computing or counting, and by extension, reasoning. Reckoning: a statement of accounts at the end, or a summation.


Charged with Friesen’s iconic use of language, his deeply mythic approach, and his nuanced observations of the natural world, Reckoning carries the reader across an ocean of thought. How far has the poet come? Which way is his life heading? What is the meaning of it? What has it all come to? Reckoning is a work of art that should first be read all in one go, and then read again with an eye and ear for all the places the strands overlap and vibrate together.


—Strand One—


small in all that blossoming, settled

on a branch in the magnolia, the bird

that sometimes hovers before my face,

eyeball to eyeball, sussing me out,

my large face and big-eyed staring,

the bird perched for a moment in a memory

of blossoms, the slow flow of sap,

an idle moment, a scent, and a return,

until a sudden sideways slip, almost

not a motion at all, the hummingbird

disappearing into the mind of the dream,

that opening, 


This first section of Reckoning illustrates not only this particular theme, a poet’s bread and butter—daily observations that catch the eye and expand in the mind—but also Friesen’s deftness, his sleight-of-hand magic that he slips into the last three lines, and “that opening,” that leaves the rest of the poem open to the reader, that comma, hanging out at the end like many of the 175 sections, like the opening up into a clearing, another theme that links back to his book, the breath you take from the lord. The hummingbird shows again in section 24, and in 29: “me alive within / some idiotic gift, sitting stunned inside the beauty, // the unbearable velocity of the hummingbird’s heart,” and periodically throughout the poem, but also other birds, other observations. “I mean the silence before the gulls, / if that is even possible to fathom that,” and “a rabbit’s line, that zig zag track / escaping the wolf,” that recurring theme of the primal. Mixed in are visits to the dental hygienist and the barber, and other moments of the everyday.


Victoria, BC’s Friesen is somehow able to capture deep history, a sense of timelessness. A “distant figure” approaches the poet in his memory, an old woman, and the poet “halted, trying to read / her beautiful hands, the world suddenly alive / within her silent gestures,” And in another section: “A redwing rises from the bulrushes and flutters silently above / my head. I can’t see it as it hovers between me and the / blinding sun. The shadow, though, leads, and I begin to / foot it lightly. I know where I am.” A reckoning.


—Strand Two—


the clatter of knives being washed at the sink, my mother

singing as usual, and I shift from the real world to the open

window above the sink, and out, some bend of time,

a transfer, a kindling, the sun flaring around the world

and nothing more,

yes, that woman and her song, what I would take in and

leave, the window she opened, her clear blue eyes gazing

into mine,


This tender, loving, and poignant strand, where poet becomes boy, remembering the past and where it all began. Remembering his mother, her voice, her song, and their cradling effect. The fuzziness of such memories and what disappears at the edges. The stark reminder of her absence: 


there is a clearing, and there was a woman who

was a child, there is a clearing, but the mother

is gone,


The clearing shows up here again, but also an exploration and the interrogation of the idea of story, another strand: “A hairpin falling to the floor, her hair undone, and / nothing the same again, so the story goes,”  and in section 90: “she left stories I didn’t know / I remembered, she held my / childhood there…remembering how she spread / the blanket for my birthday picnic, / the blanket holding everything,” the mother as caregiver, as provider, as the one who can make everything right:


it flares bright as an after-image,

and fades away, this last picture

I have of her, shrunken into herself

in the broda, gazing out the window,

she says, it all goes by so quickly, and

looking back at me, inside I’m still 10

you know?


In just a few remembered words in conversation, Friesen captures not only one of his final memories of his beloved mother, but also everything that eats at our souls, that feeling of the eternal present, that fierce yearning and wonder, that sense that the child within is who we really are, never really growing up. A mother that knew what it was like to live and also grow old “standing still in a loose shirt, the hoe / leaning against her shoulder, she / loved what her body knew, and / what it lost[.]” Another reckoning. 

—Strand Three—


a brief history of letting go, again and

again, sometimes unknowing, sometimes

dejected, becoming an age your children

see from a distance, you have left selves

behind, selves you remember and align

within the story even as you disengage,

is this the freedom you haven’t found?


Already the strands are bound so tightly that to pull at one is to pull at all of them. Better to see the overlap, the vibration of colour and sound. This is the strand of reasoning and philosophy. The thoughtful wisdom of a farmer looking over a field and nodding I reckon—a powerful strand that connects past and story and all that can be thought about life and death:


There may be nothing after death; I tend toward that.

Or, everything. But I doubt it.

Someone singing through an open window. This I know.


Author Patrick Friesen

Here again his mother’s voice, and the openness of windows and clearings. Evidently, Friesen has thought deeply about life’s meaning for many years and it shows: “I may well be in a car driving towards death, Sigmund, but / I’m sitting in the back seat, and I don’t see anyone at the / wheel…Mostly the view is good…though the car has been speeding up / lately,” or as a boy: “and then lying flat on my back in tall grass / gazing at that distance. Earthling.” This strand had me using the more sticky-tabs than any other strand to mark up this book, it’s so full and rich: “there are memories that cannot fit the story, / they are too hard-edged and won’t be shaped…stones / on the road of a narrative, adding nothing but / fear, and who wants to die afraid?” and “the shorter your remaining / days, the longer your story, a shadow / lengthening behind you[.]” The final reckoning. 




Friesen has interspersed his long poem with a handful of sections that consist of dialogues between two characters. They act as koans, deliberately disrupting the flow of the poem:


S: You’ve never been there, you have no past in Dublin

Pádraig: I do, I’ve walked through the snow to Michael Furey’s grave.

S: But there’s no Michael Furey

Pádraig: Ah, but there is. I remember him.

S: It’s just a story.

Pádraig: Yes, it is.


—Strand Four—


fully clothed she descended

the staircase, somehow losing her clothes

on a landing halfway down, which

is where I greeted her, all motion slowing

to a kiss,


What is life without passion? Without love? Friesen’s expression of it here is not muted, but it is slight, as a way of honouring the deeply personal: “eve, absolutely still, leaning forward, / fingers motionless on the keyboard, / her eyes staring the words into extinction, / until they finally come alive,” Friesen touches the topic here and there throughout the book. In a dialogue between “A” and “John,” desire is “more then beauty, more than form; its touching / the skin of the one you love,” and “as usual you trail off, and the ache remains, / love[.]” A kind of reckoning. 


—Strand Five—


there are stuttering angels that come to speech,

clear and drunk, almost still in that fusion, a motion

that cannot be measured or weighed

but I don’t know, there must be other ways

to say that, or not,

not to say anything at all, it comes to that,

and yes there were moments of fearlessness,


Story is questioned but still useful in Reckoning, powerful and weak at the same time. There are deep, dark stories of the past that brush up against the shadows of Friesen’s psyche: “the story of the farmhouse in flames, the despair / of the man with a pail of water in his hand,” The power of story as a vessel for memory, however faint: “This is what was remembered in all the agitation; it was November 1918,” or it’s shifting shape: “I listened and said / that’s not exactly how you told it before, / and she said, of course not, you were younger / with different ears, so which one is true, / or at least truer? and she said yes” or memories that cannot be properly contained: “there are memories that cannot fit the story, / they are too hard-edged and won’t be shaped,” Friesen’s epigraph uses a line from a song by the Irish Rovers: “what shall we do with a drunken sailor?” and the theme of ships and navigation and finding one’s way reappears: “aye, that’s the story, and it’s nothing / but evidence, true or not, all of us in this ship / of mirrors. the perfect camouflage…we’re sailing / without a captain, just us denizens, / aye aye[.]” Dead reckoning. 


—Strand Six—


dickinson walked up and down the stairs, between

the kitchen and her room, between callers

and the brief visitation of the poem,

there was that navigation, a lonely one, but a sure

one that no one knew, and she arrived where the

horses were headed,


Friesen peppers Reckoning with references to poets and musicians, not superficially, but the experience and art of text and song as a way to fully enter the world, to experience the eternal now: “that moment when you’re seized / by the collar and you enter a place called time, or / rather you don’t move at all,”  Joyce, Yeats, Auden, Kierkegaard, Thoreau, and song, always, song—Etta James, Annie Lennox, the piano of his childhood, and of course, his mother’s song, right from the womb. If Friesen’s childhood was anything like mine, growing up as a Mennonite meant full immersion into music and song; and language too, surrounding us on all sides on Sundays and during the week.

Near the end of the book, Friesen imagines or recalls “A man memorizing poems on his deathbed…Something to remind him of earth. An unholy / passport.” Reckoning.


—Strand Seven—


Even cave paintings change. Sealed up, lost to human

memory, fading into migration, And the hunt going on,

wolves creeping ever nearer the fire. You can trace it in

your mind, the way things begin to look the way they

sound. The letters, the wolf becoming dog, woof woof,

and the migrant alphabet,

Some of the selections in Reckoning have been put to music in collaboration with Friesen’s son, Nico, on a wonderful CD called O’Keeffe Bones. In the album, Freisen, with his sonorous voice alongside Niko’s musical talent, taps into the ancient part of us, the primal, the mystery of human origins and the origins of language. Where did words start? Where did song? Friesen has spent a lifetime of trying to track it down: “I have tracked an animal all my life, following / its spoor, moving between foot and mind,” and later, “what is that animal you keep tracking, / although the trail is broken now, and you / navigate by memory[.]” A dead reckoning. 

It’s perhaps a bit cheeky to pull seven strands from Freisen’s book—there’s a quiet joke from my youth about preachers who made seven-point sermons instead of the standard three, a sort of show of spiritual strength, perhaps—and some strands could be conflated or bundled together—but the structure does illustrate the rich complexity of Reckoning. There is humour here too, with his buddy Ralph “snickering behind our hands in church… breathe on me breath of God, and us thinking / halitosis… laughing ourselves loony,” a humour that does more than lighten the depths and darkness of thought that Friesen plumbs, but that also understands that we can’t take ourselves too seriously, that laughter can open up the mind, that meaning might even be found in the joke.

It can be difficult to land a poem properly—not with a leaden thud, or with a finality that is too sure of itself, but also not trailing off like someone bored with their own story—never mind a poem as long as a book, but Freisen manages it just fine:


all hands on deck,

oh baby,

what a wonder



Al Rempel

Al Rempel’s books of poetry are Undiscovered Country (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2018), This Isn’t the Apocalypse We Hoped For (Caitlin Press, 2013), and Understories (Caitlin, 2010). He also has four chapbooks, the two most recent published by the Alfred Gustav Press: Behind the Bladed Green, Deerness, Four Neat Holes and Picket Fence Diaries. Rempel’s poems have appeared in various journals and anthologies across Canada, and some of his poems have been translated into Italian. His video poem collaborations have been screened internationally. For more information, please visit his website. Editor’s note: Al Rempel reviewed Christopher Levenson in BCR.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: 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 now 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. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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