Sympathy for the Couriers (Vehicule Press, 2007) is Peter Richardson’s third collection of poetry, and his best. Let’s look at all thirty-eight poems in it.
THE FIST-PUPPET’S SOLILOQUY
Laughter as needed antidote, but also as cowardly defense mechanism. The speaker walks an intelligent divide between condemnation and sympathy. The phrasing is arresting: “jabbering, magic-markered fist”; “snarl converted to a hayseed’s guffaw”; “cracker bromides”.
PANTOUM OF THE WAN IRONIST
Startling inversions delineating movement from revolution to fleeing or relentless fate. Unfortunately, the “ironist” of the title somewhat dribbles out the surprise, but it’s an intriguing poem, nonetheless.
FIORD DREAM: NOTE TO MY PSYCHIC DOUBLE
Witty and enjoyable, even profound, with much humour. The hilarity of the narrator talking to his psychic double even after awake is a neat conceit. Isn’t this how many of us live? We’re supposed to wake to the logical, pedestrian world of “reality” (whatever that means), but Richardson perceptively allows, in imaginative linkages, that there is little if any difference between the sleeping and waking states. To further muddy the distinctions between the two, he’s crafted the second half of the poem -- beginning with “I’m ready to board” -- in such a way as to defy the reader to pick one or the other. And I love “I’m ready to board” as a double meaning to his doppleganger.
As to this double, the poem also concerns itself with the two sides of the poet: dreamy spontaneous creator next to waking plodder, the latter humorously chided as serious-miened Berlitz student. Notice the purpose of “windy”, “winging things”, “unwind”. But the narrator fuses the double in a confident realization that imagination must work with guile and stealth , and, on that front, I enjoyed “we’ll carry a letter/from the Governor’s Palace.” The poet’s double function, when successful.
Perfectly sequenced, by mood contrast, after "Fiord Dream", this is an expressive nightmare, all the more affecting because of its aural immediacy. The narrator's oneiric residue carries into the waking day, which will then colour the latter in unforeseen ways. Alternately, the nightmare could also be seen as archetype, a collective commonplace, but Jung bores me, so I won't go there.
A funny take-down of several pegs. The impressive precision of the titular vehicule gives way to its operator, a mere “assistant”, infinitely removed from the genius which crafted his or her transportation, and who uses it in an unheroic task for scooping “junk mail and bills”. The final indignity which follows is timed with comic success. “Operational limits” and “I-beams” are also clever touches.
NOTES TOWARDS A MARRIAGE OF TWO HANDS
Slightly reminiscent of “Fiord Dreams” in creative longing, “Notes” is more concerned with the coalescing, yet individuated, personalities of a double. In this instance, one is wishing for transformation, the other backing same in order to be transformed in turn as an audience member or lover. The repetitive, alliterative “w”s serve as beseeching, but failed, attempts at soulful union. Of course, there can’t be a much greater contrast in the avian set than exists between the toucan’s colourful pageantry and its raucous voice. All sorts of metaphorical suggestions to that of the artist, once again, exist.
A celebratory commemoration, lovingly deployed. Some wonderful phrases here: “Parish/Potluck of our backyard gully”; “thin clouds of incense”.
LATE PROPOSALS FROM MY MUSE
This is a curious poem. Its five triplets are, rare for Richardson, numbered, which leads me to believe they not only act as progressive narrative, if you will, but also as self-contained units.
The speaker and addressee need to be defined, if possible. The Muse is authoritatively, even aggressively, telling the artist how to proceed, but not (as is often unfortunately understood in this relationship) what to write (so much for the shy, ministering angel).
The progression, or rather devolution, makes for a frightening inversion on the Godly promise, though the “toys made from the bones of large birds” is a remarkable, and hard won, harvest.
SHORE REPORT (1250 B.C.)
Part two begins with a cagey narrative. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the (typically) wonderful twist that is almost a Richardson staple, but I’ll just mention that the thrice-repeated internal “aw” enunciations in the last two lines act as perfectly placed mock regret.
THE HIGH BARRENS FOLK AGREE IN PRINCIPLE TO PUT A MOJO ON THE VALLEY DWELLERS
The parallels here are straightforward, though the language and ideas used to convey the narrative are anything but standard. Envy is the issue -- envy and petty revenge. The feelings of inadequacy, though metaphorically clothed in “dry taiga” of circumstantial geography, have much to do with that nasty human emotion of bitterness over others’ joy, putting into relief their own lack of elan. But the “facsimile”, the “brilliant fakery” of the high plains folk, points to another historical (and certainly future) horror: the communal scramble of the have-nots to secure needed resources (fuel, food, electricity, water, soil) from the haves.
CORA WAITS FOR A BRIGHT IDEA FROM HER BOYS
A multigenerational musing on the sins of the fathers, the poem wrings a hopeful transformation fantasy for Cora’s sons. The “savings and loans” scandal of the late 80s acts as neat metaphor for profligate spending of all sorts.
After I finished a second reading of this poem, I thought how the powerful emotions might have been ratchetted even higher by a first-person accounting. Upon further reflection, I’m sure I was wrong. Richardson’s narratives so far in this second section operate by recollected (fictionally or artistically altered) fact, and by metaphorical image. Introducing interiorities, or rather, highlighting those interiors, would, I feel, dilute metaphorical gems such as, “anticipating the smell of leaves/burning in large piles as you hum”. Richardson often creates a more pungent emotion in the short space of an apt image or delayed, repeated plot interjection than do many poets promenading dribbling, lengthy confessionals.
PROFESSOR BASSO CHATS IT UP ON THE OSLO-TO-ROME NIGHT FLIGHT
As in “Shore Report”, I won’t say much about the story since it’d pre-empt surprise. Among other ideas, the poem’s a study in contrast between opposing hierarchies on one hand, and a supposedly disinterested hierarchy on the other, with the narrator’s response to the latter left teasingly unknown. The desperate “oh” euphonies match the urgency of the drama.
Ah ha ha! The life of Riley, even in a sickbed. “Imagine a room full of career moms/juggling two jobs and house chores,/spoon-feeding Riley spiked sherbet,”. As in many of these narratives, the object of most interest is not so much the one observed as it is the one who’s telling the story. And another open-ended question (though there are several suggestions) as to what the narrator (and the other cuckolds) lacks.
McFARLANE’S RECAP FROM SKYE
Sometimes one reads a poem which is so identifiable that the personal and universal are indistinguishable. The speaker immediately reminded me, in detail and temperament, of my ex-father-in-law. A fascinating combination of pig-headedness, anger, and proud independence, and not without a sliver of transformation (“I’ll navigate through a stormy winter,/watching the straight dives of ospreys”.) I love the quick shifts of topic here, mirroring the restlessness, the curiosity of the bought-out exec who displays that wonderful idiosyncrasy which a good poet will revel in and expand upon, rather than simply pitching the lazy label of “businessman”, and then proceeding with an arrogant, simplistic sermon.
A NEIGHBOUR RECALLS BARNEY CLARK
Well, it’s taken me till #16 till I’ve not been knocked out by a Richardson richness. This one didn’t work for me on several levels: the opening “I wished him a donor heart” is a little too obvious, a well-worn trail; despite its seriousness, the anecdote seems slight; the final “safe house” is a tad on the precious side.
NOTES TOWARDS A BILLY BISHOP BIOPIC
A speculative history. Bishop’s story is probed, but the author is right to separate fact from myth, biased evidence from motive. Swatches, here, get cluttered with detail, but the language overcomes the periodic markers. Though it’s not an original idea, the poem ends on a wise note against history as a purely objective evaluative indictment.
Very clever. An ambitious and successful mix of the horrific, the sad, and the humorous. The speaker’s subtle put-downs are perfectly embedded in the quick, run-on short-lined consolation: “Take up/what little charm you had”; “think of those, who …. aren’t as fit or solvent/as you and yet abide/in some fleabag hotel”. The pitiful, “and the ward nurses/understand self-expression/in all its tawdry forms”, is suggestively exquisite. And the last four lines (which I won’t quote so’s to maintain the surprise) are hilarious.
The poem reminded me of a quote from a talk by the Soto Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, who, regarding artists, said: “If an artist becomes too idealistic, he will commit suicide, because between his ideal and his actual ability there is a great gap. Because there is no bridge long enough to go across the gap, he will begin to despair.”
THE WIDOWED BIRDER SIGHTS A MAY-DECEMBER PAIRING
Some lovely traded assonance here. Effective in mood and diction.
THE LANDLOCKED SELKIE
Sassy and tight, with a witty, brief, surprising turn (“word-counts to meet”) second-to-last line. A whelk is a marine snail, but also a pustule. And the selkie? Well, it's obvious which metamorphosis the couple favours.
TEN TERCETS FOR LINKED HORNS
Another curious piece. I reread this one many times, initially missing the “links” the title offers. Perhaps Richardson wanted to be oblique here, and to that end, I love that the conversation takes place “in the dark bedroom”. Intimacy and intuition are called out; a resolution is reached, incorporating both of their wishes.
A CONVALESCENT MOUNTAINEER AND HIS WIFE CONSIDER THEIR DAUGHTER’S ANTICS
A delightful dialogue. The irony of “bound[ing] up the outside of the stairs” is funny.
Now this is an intriguing placing by Richardson since it’s a direct follow-up to “Souvenir” from his previous collection, An ABC of Belly Work. The couple are older by some years, their passion still strong though now somewhat self-conscious. A tender revelation, and the opening line (which, again, I won’t quote here out of fear of giving too much away) is perfect.
This is a heartbreaking poem, one of the finest in a collection saturated with quality. Feelings ignite and suffuse out of the built-up context in musically-timed points: “mesmerized”, “irked”, “bug-eyed” (rounding with the final “cicadas”). The confluence of narrative with lyrical cross-pointed falls and rises is amazing, and what takes the poem to a level beyond accomplished is that it’s all a stated dream, and furthermore, a dream that has to be deciphered by another, the husband (which is then effectively transferred to us). A bravura piece of imagination, both artistic and familial.
ON JFK PARK
Again, this says more about the speaker than it does about the subject, or at least one’s made to dig up the speaker’s untold story from fascinating suggestion. I could write a full-length essay here on my sympathy for the stepfather, but that would be inappropriate and taxing (certainly on my part). I’ll just close by stating that, though these narratives are rivetting, it’s the psychological depth which informs them that intrigue the most. Oh, and the crafted repetitions, hard-boiled spilling language, intimate tone ….
A clever (yes, I know some of these adjectives are becoming repetitive) and humorous “turn”, the triple meaning of “figure”, the double meanings of “expenses”, “Production”, and the “Rue” of the title, lend a curt charm to this transaction.
TUCK RETURNS AIRSIDE AGAIN
I very much enjoyed this poem on several levels, but, selfishly, thought it could have been even better with an expansion on both the “shaved-headed” and Tuck characters. Contrasts and metaphors, again, are on the mark: “busted/office chairs”; “exodus/of gung-ho card players” vs. “influx …. men who adjust voices”. Low-tech spontaneous camaraderie set against high-tech efficiency and prosaic routine.
I worked for years at a steel mill, in a warehouse, at manufacturing plants, and in offices, and the honesty (in this poem) of subtle power plays (or at least uneasy observance of many differences) between young and old workers may be missed by those not clued in to that world, but may more likely be missed by the unassuming, seemingly off-hand presentation by Richardson. There’s nothing casual in these lines, however. Word choices are exact and exacting; detail is wisely concise.
No comment on the narrative. It’d spoil the surprise. But if I may, just a few comments on the wonderful soft “e”s of “depresses” (a perfect and hilarious choice), “message”, “breathy suspension”, evoking the assumed disgust.
I SING OF THE VULCAN
This poem is so compressed I felt throttled trying to connect many of the associations. The sound is exciting -- I imagine it voiced rapidly -- but I lost my bearings (no pun), though perhaps that was part of the point.
MY FATHER IN RETIREMENT
Three “aw”s: “till they had gone/beyond the object of their hugging”. So many contemporary (and near contemporary) poems dredge up a hopeful spiritual effect by rampant abuses of the words “falling light”, “luminous”, “shot through”, (or for the full monty: “shot through with falling light”), that when the above-opening quoted lines are encountered there’s an immediate recognition of their aptness, their honesty, their surprise, their unpretentiousness. This is what it is to be “happy for no reason”. Epiphanies, in life or poetry, can’t be willed. There’s nothing virtuosic about this poem, but its simplicity works best to bring out the amazing accuracies of the speaker’s observations, as well as the enveloping tenderness in the room.
The first poem in part four, the propelling dimetre and trimetre announces “the noccini are coming”. Humour, menace, high spirits. A “kitchen” sink of a poem if it were, as I’d hoped, at least a tad longer.
THE BALLAST TRUNK
The sound and double meaning of “coffering loss” and “numbered drawers” is impeccable. And the realization, in physical struggle, of dilemmas in grieving is also victoriously wrestled. A terrific poem in its success in breadth and depth of ambition, its hurtling surprise, its quick images (“a passing cloud/gives you a glimpse of your clenched jaw”.)
OAK LEDGE PARK IN DECEMBER
Glorious imagery. Excellent soundplay, by turns startling and sinuously dreamlike.
LAURENT FACE TO THE RAPIDS
Both tense and thoughtful, the shrinking line lengths in each triplet create an effect of a climber surging to hold, then resting to gauge balance and to refocus concentration. An intelligent dual meditation on the arts of rock climbing and poetry. And both, of course, are slippery.
The long lines and the stanza-plus sentences fed my submersion in restlessness with that of the subject. The final image is a mature realization of practical procedure over idealism, and the attitude of deflation is fascinating in its ambiguity.
Well, now the ambiguity is cleared up, at least narratively. The conceit here isn’t original, but it’s certainly effective.
THE STATION CLOCK
Too indistinct. Though suggestive, I didn’t find optional answers -- or the language that conveyed it --illuminating or sharp.
SOUTH PROSPECT FOLIO
In five stanzas, each with seventeen lines so’s to highlight their individual importance, this poem deals with the event (death), the immediate aftermath, the musing on what the quickly dying see, the eulogy, and the clichéd (though powerful and subtly put) rumination on life only having force in the here and now.
I counted -- what? -- two clunkers out of the 38, a few others with slight flaws, and the overwhelming majority of the poems either good or surpassing. Peter Richardson is a major voice in contemporary Canadian poetry. It’s a delight to read, one after another, vivid and necessary poems about people, events, issues, idiosyncratic and various experiences, about love and care for language, and ultimately about trusting that language to sincerely communicate to the reader universal joys and sorrows.
These entries also perplex (by contrast) as to why these poetic staples aren’t more in evidence amongst the line-spinning clan. Blame the great Stevens, whose focus on imagination and art as an isolated shrine his followers used as an excuse to cut out reality for the dream (notice how Richardson’s “Fiord Dream” allows the dream into the foundational realm of the physical world, not vice versa). Blame the haters of poetry who scorned language as truth and communication, replacing it with a parasitic, disingenuous (what, they aren’t communicating their “truth”?) unmusical sterility. Blame the quietists and/or minimalists who trumped suggestion over detail, context, voice, so that emotions emerged from an omnipresent ghost. Blame the historical fetishists who often recreate nineteenth century drama from study or workshop or classroom because profundity has been absent from their own lives, or because other contemporary lives and concerns baffle them.
Whatever the reason, Sympathy for the Couriers deserves that the wider readership knows it exists, and that it is separated by light years from the thousandfold instantly remaindered rectangular rec room coasters among us.