Poetry Review by Jay Ruzesky

Daphne Marlatt, Intertidal: The Collected Earlier Poems, 1968-2008 (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2017). Paperbound, 594 pp., $29.95.

IntertidalMy undergraduate years coincided with the publication of Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic, an unconventional, poetic novel that is one of the most important pieces of Canadian fiction of the past fifty years. As a student, I wrote several papers about that book and have been fascinated by Marlatt’s work since. So the arrival of Intertidal on Malahat’s review shelf was exciting for me, but I was also suspicious. One of the characteristics of Marlatt’s writing is her consistent practice of working outside the lines, refusing to be bound by dichotomous categories like “poetry or prose,” or “fiction or nonfiction,” or even “published” (she is a writer who continues revising and redrafting her work after it has been presented to the world by a publisher). Much of her work is collaborative, so my first thought was about how the binding of this work, even in the form of a nearly six-hundred-page tome that looks like a reference book, is a kind of impossibility. How does one put brackets (or covers) around such a vital and outward-looking writing career? How contain it? Collected? Earlier? Poems? Marlatt? What do any of those things mean?

But in Marlatt’s surprising, unconventional fashion, this doorstop of a book is remarkably friendly, warm even. I read it, over weeks, cover to cover and, despite its intimidating size, it is a book you can curl up with by the fire with your cat. At least that’s my hope—this is not a book that should be read only under the fluorescent lights of the graduate library annex by students writing literature papers. And I think that quality of accessibility the book has comes from the “openness” of the writer. It feels almost risky, maybe a little vulnerable for Marlatt to have allowed her work to be so contained. In her forward, “Further Thoughts: A Note on the Poems,” she says going through her work “felt like probing into layers of the past, a past that was both mine and larger than mine. Each of those books was put together as a depth sounding of my internal/external location as a woman writing…” and “moving through a North American milieu of communities centred on writing a poetry both linguistically aware and expressive of the cultural currents and socio-political movements for equality in that period.” In a way, Intertidal is a sort of autobiography—or perhaps more of an autobiographical gesture in the form of an experimental documentary—of the movements of a writer’s mind over time.

Susan Holbrook’s excellent “Introduction” begins by addressing the problem of containment. When she began the project, she admits she naively thought it “would be a straightforward process,” but realized quickly that Marlatt’s work presented a number of challenges. The first was “form.” How (why?) does one label her production? As Holbrook says, the “energies of the sentence, of narrative, infuse Marlatt’s poetry while the micro attentions to language and her musical ear enrich her prose, so that much of her writing dances somewhere on a spectrum between the two forms.” Then there are the many versions and revisions that refuse to be pinned down, and also the collaborative works in which “authorship” is “a fluid exchange.” The solution is “to include texts that would act as gestures toward the work that [they] left out of Intertidal.” So Ana Historic is not reprinted here, but there are other works included in which the “force of prose is palpable.”

Daphne Marlatt spent her childhood in Australia and Malaysia and immigrated to Vancouver with her family when she was a child, and the effects of the idea of place play into much of her writing. The beginnings of her writing career coincided with an important period in the development of poetry in Canada; she was associated with TISH: a poetry newsletter, and she participated in the influential 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference at UBC. From that event, and particularly from the ideas of Robert Duncan, Marlatt says she

"inherited a notion of the poem as a musical score, that is, what is on the page with its spacing and indented lines is a kind of score for how to sound the poem aloud. So although my poems are texts that can be read silently on the page, they are also, and most importantly, scores for reading aloud, which is when a listener can catch, through emphasis, rhythm, and off-rhyme, subtle connections in semantic association that might otherwise be lost."

So, even in the “Selected Uncollected Early Poems” section (the earliest poem is from 1964), the idea of the poem as music is a key to reading Marlatt and a prompt which unlocks a great deal of simple pleasure in the texts (see paragraph two above re: curling up with the cat). In “Day Two—Place To Place,” for example, Marlatt writes:

I want the sentence to run

like this river does …

crouched in the grass off the walk, off, opening out, a cove—this
riverbank of green grass & dry rustles, murmurs—sunlight in
gull wings, transparent, cry over cove’s small boat sides
meet river lap, slap—wind & wake

The stanza (Marlatt has coined the term “stanzagraph”) models the image it summons; the sentence does run like a river, and more than its flow of language that spills like water with the energy of the sentence, there is attention to the musical sound of the river apparent in the sibilant consonants of “rustles” and “murmurs” and the onomatopoeic “lap” and “slap.” That musical energy is, I suggest, present on the page, but becomes accentuated when the poem is read aloud.

In the section of her “Introduction” subtitled “Intertidal Re(Vision),” Susan Holbrook discusses Marlatt’s process of “processional poetics,” in which the writer “rejects both predetermined content (coming to writing with an immutable something to say) and predetermined form (a rigid container to fill); rather it blooms out of itself, as the writer looks to the language she’s just written and listens for what comes next.” Whether the current form of any particular piece of writing in Intertidal has shifted in the current incarnation is, for me, not important. What is relevant is the energy the poetic drive imparts in the work. If a reader is coming to these texts for the first time, or if reading is a Re(Vision) of Marlatt’s poems, there is equal reward. It matters that the selections from earlier books are substantial so that readers can develop a sense of Marlatt’s writing in those times and places, even while developing a picture of her career as a whole. We get enough of leaf leaf/s, Rings, Vancouver Poems, and of later books to form a strong sense of Marlatt as a writer through the years, and of the sometimes circular processional path she has been walking. Toward the end of the volume (from 2008), the entirety of Marlatt’s chapbook, Between Brush Strokes (a collaboration with the artist Frances Hunter), is included. It is a text that was printed in a very small, limited edition by Jack Pine Press, so there is some generosity in its reprinting here, especially because such care has been taken to reproduce it visually. Between Brush Strokes is the last text before the final section of “Selected Uncollected Later Poems.” These final poems got my attention—what did she include here and why? Many are dedicated to friends and other cultural workers, and one, “Locative, For Phyllis,” in its reverence for
the dedicatee, Phyllis Webb (who has said, “The proper response to a poem is another poem.”), seems to provide an elegant processional, musical, ending/unending for this review:

writing reaches, stretches intact in turns and just beyond the pen-
(its quick fluid motion, its unread remembering) -manship
never having broached the drift leaves the meander a woman’s
hand is rising in flight

so that even the cavalcade of geese will veer away at the last
second, uniform, like an audience applauding the undecidability
of things: take off


—Jay Ruzesky

As in The Malahat Review, 205, Winter 2018