1017 Flashes of light in darkness

Nothing You Can Carry: Poems
by Susan Alexander

Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 2020
$20.00 / 9781771871983

Reviewed by Candace Fertile

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The cover of Susan Alexander’s second book of poetry, Nothing You Can Carry, has one of the loveliest covers I’ve seen, a photo by Emmett Sparling, and it wonderfully fits what’s inside. The poems are flashes of light in darkness. Alexander laments the degradation of the environment while celebrating the beauty of the natural world. Her home on Howe Sound is reflected in the plethora of details, such as ocean, cedar, salal, otters, and whales. The epigraph from Lorna Crozier is perfect as it captures Alexander’s search for meaning that infuses these poems: “choosing, / over heaven, / this common patch of earth” — the natural world may be the spiritual world.

The poems are arranged in five sections: “Vigil,” “Confession,” “Parables,” “Pilgrimage,” and “Matins.” “Vigil” won the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry 2019, and it includes some of the most powerful poems in this book. The first poem, “Anthropocene,” sets the tone for the volume as it identifies both loss of faith and nature. The speaker says, “I am ever so mildly environmental. / Sign letters, petitions, mites sent to the cause. / Others fund apocalypse.” Alexander frequently directs readers’ attention to what is going wrong, so is hardly “mild,” but the poems are not onslaughts on human mistakes rather a refocussing of thoughts toward what is important — appreciation of the world and of love. The voice is female, and manages to avoid clichés about women as caretakers. Alexander appears far too tough-minded for that. In “Canticle for Sea Lions in Howe Sound,” for example, the speaker revels in the barking of the sea lions and how listening to dozens and watching them porpoise is uplifting, but the creatures’ “present return” is likely to end in “probable destruction.”

Susan Alexander of Bowen Island. Photo by Michael O’Shea

The second section, “Confession,” focusses a bit more on human relationships, including motherhood. In “Broody,” the speaker confesses her change in attitude after giving birth. She had “abhorred the flesh,” but now “I would kill / (rapaciously and with joy) / to shelter, to feed.” The twist is that Alexander is not particularly exalting motherhood, but the animal essence of us: “I heard / the yip yip yip, / coyotes nipping along my veins.” The third section, “Parables,” manages to create narrative in short poems. In “Colourblind Son,” the differing perceptions of the mother and son are shown to be unimportant as the son can see what matters, leaves and stones and deer, not the colours of the Brueghel painting his mother once showed him.

Alexander often alludes to fairy and folk tales in several poems in this section: “Joringel,” “Rose-Red,” and “The Pooka,” for example, and puts her own twist on them. In “Convolvulus,” a woman “is unraveled / by blue eyes” and the man takes over her body just as morning glories can invade a garden. The poem starts out positive, but when you think about what morning glories can do, well, it becomes quite a chilling poem, with an unforgettable image.

Susan Alexander. Photo by Emily Angus

The fourth section, “Pilgrimage,” begins with poems about travel to places far from BC such as France, Turkey, Spain, and Morocco. Then the distance shortens to Washington State, and finally the poems explore the travel of one body to another. In “Aubade,” the speaker exposes a contradiction of love, by saying “I am an Imperialist     in love” and wanting complete control of the loved one but allows freedom. The fifth section’s poems, “Matins,” less analogous than the previous sections, but it cycles back to the overall theme of the importance of nature in the final poem, “Last Morning,” and adds a note of hope: “Listen. / It is still not too late.” That’s an excellent place to conclude.

It’s evident that Alexander finds meaning in the world and wants to celebrate it. She does so with a gentle strength that is so very appealing.

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Candace Fertile

Candace Fertile has a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta. She teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, writes book reviews for several Canadian publications, and is on the editorial board of Room Magazine. She has reviewed books by Katherine FawcettMarjorie CelonaGarry Thomas MorseNazanine HozarTiziana La MeliaRita Wong & Fred WahCarla Funk, and Jen Currin for The Ormsby Review.

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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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