Poetry Reviews by Erling Friis-Baastad

Allan Safarik, The Day is a Cold Grey Stone (Regina: Hagios, 2010). Paperbound, 120 pp., $17.95.

Richard Lemm, Burning House, (Hamilton: Wolsak and Wynn, 2010). Paperbound, 126 pp., $17.

Ken Belford, Decompositions, (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2010). Paperbound, 96 pp., $16.95.

Allan Safarik’s poem “Bulova” concludes with “…some foolproof system / invented The Day is a Cold Grey Stoneby time.” The phrase is significant not only in the context of the poem, but also when applied to Safarik’s entire collection of new and selected West Coast poems, The Day is a Cold Grey Stone. It also resonates with two other collections recently issued by Canadian poets now in their sixties, Richard Lemm and Ken Belford. Age has allowed these artists to rise above youthful absolutes to engage with what matters most: our brief sojourn in the world, challenge by challenge, and blessing by blessing. It’s a state of grace well served by art. Safarik, who now lives in Saskatchewan, was raised in a fishing family near Vancouver. In those days, overlooking the North Shore mountains, boys on their paper routes were more likely to encounter a black bear than a local franchise dealer for a Mexican drug cartel, and children hadn’t yet come to fear all strangers. “Along the way we talked to every character we encountered,” says Safarik recalling childhood ramblings in his introduction to the collection. That setting nurtured powers of sight and insight. For instance, many privileged young poets have attempted to empathize with a deranged street person, but how many cast a light on another’s secret wounds the way Safarik does? In the collection’s title poem, a crazy woman hacks at flowers with a stick as the special silver light of a grey West Coast day illuminates her confusion:

I think she has been wronged
by the appearance of the world
How it tricked her with flattery
images she did not understand
Light arranging chaos
Black edge drawn against the white
Love and the mysterious burden of flesh
It dies a little every day
in the prison of mirage
its secrets locked away

There’s a fascinating link between this poem and the title poem of an earlier Safarik collection God Loves Us Like Earthworms Love Wood: “Try hard to make my words / more concerned with humans / less of the natural world / and my self-projection.” If that youthful quest didn’t resolve itself the way Safarik intended—humans are very much part of the natural world—the poet does succeed at rising above mere selfprojection, whether in illuminating an old woman’s pain, or being able to express an existential dilemma in a lonely room and have it answered by a passing spider “with his / eloquent / black / legs.”

While Safarik was growing up in a wilderness-dominated city that was beginning to Burning Houseundergo wrenching environmental changes, Richard Lemm was coming of age just to the south, in Seattle. The U.S. was being sucked into the bloody mayhem of Vietnam. American ideals and promises were being tested and confounded by an incomprehensible war. “I read somewhere that every generation / needs a war for its defining metaphor,” writes Lemm in “Saddlebags.” Vietnam was the defining metaphor for his. The U.S.was divided over the conflict. Often brother was very literally pitted against brother, and father against son. Lemm packed his bags and left for Canada. But as simple as that decision sounds in hindsight, it was made with much painful soul-searching, a process that has continued well into his sixties, judging by the honest and wise poems collected in Burning House. During the Vietnam debacle, teenagers were forced to confront the old daunting questions: Does “Thou shalt not kill” not apply in all situations? What is honour? What is duty? What is patriotism? What about the example of warrior ancestors? What debt do we owe them? Whom do we trust when “the roads are choked / with righteousness camouflaged / as tanks…” and when listening to a war’s apologists makes you feel like “…a bird / sucked into a jet engine”? Meanwhile, the martial culture can prove seductively romantic. “Never underestimate the glamorous / grace of a cruciform hilt in a scabbard,” Lemm warns in “Richard Speaks to Me, the Faint-Hearted.”

How does an old man live with a decision made at 19, whether it was to kill on, or flee from, the battlefield? Lemm has searched his own past and the world’s history for his answers. At times a question posed in one poem will be addressed again in another. “The Quay of Regret” recounts his flirtation with serving as a noncombatant merchant marine sailor, “But I can’t do that, I hear myself say, forty / years later, I’m opposed to the war, can’t help / ship supplies, though otherwise….” But morality is not the only guide or goad. “The Boatmen of Arbeia” recalls merchant sailors imported from the Tigris Valley to serve the vestiges of the Roman Empire’s war machine in Britain. Lemm writes of men who struggled to take pride in their commitment and endurance but privately marvelled at “How one’s triumphs may be rewarded / with exile. With gloom.” When it comes to an empire’s wars must all choices lead to regret?

It’s important to stress that gloom does not dominate this book. There are poems of sorrow and loss, certainly, but Lemm’s recollections are kindled with moments of humour and with magic as in his haunting “Hendrix of Arabia,” about the rebirth of a rebellious spirit of defiance and doubt that has shown up among troops throughout history. In Lemm’s poem, a U.S. Marine convoy near Basra encounters a mirage that gradually solidifies: “Rainbow scarves, peacock shirt, gypsy / trousers, Robin Hood Boots” with “those trigger fingers on his Stratocaster….” Vietnam-era rock icon Jimi Hendrix is still a powerful antidote to war fever.

Ken Belford’s poems of the 1960s and ‘70s were built of carefully chosen words Decompositionsstacked into strong, lean structures that evoked the growth of a man learning and earning his way through the wilderness of northern B. C. They were the poems of one who would have known how to build sturdy cabin walls with a few basic, well-kept tools. Over the years, his vision has darkened and his lines have lengthened as globalized consumerism has threatened his world and numbed his neighbours. This is understandable and even to be expected from those who are standing their ground against the storm of venal mayhem. “Everyone’s wanting to go somewhere / but I’ll be staying home,” he declares in the book-length suite Decompositions. Unfortunately, the darkness sometimes overwhelms his artistry. “It’s true there’s / too much theory and not enough passion” he observes, but is also capable of floundering into rhetoric like “…and I write topology / indices of elongated lowland lines…. ” And some of his bitterness appears to have as much to do with career disappointments as environmental and social sorrows: “Only the few who have adjusted the models / even know what nonmarket poetry is.”

However, prophets traditionally tend to rage when ignored. What truly matters is Belford’s ability to continue to engage with all of Creation and his own creativity in the face of his most daunting visions: “There are stars / beneath the ice, worms below the / mud and fears the size of small / mountains.”

—Erling Friis-Baastad

As in The Malahat Review, 174, Spring 2011, 81-84