Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sue Wheeler's HABITAT

Sue Wheeler is one of many poets whose name I've happened across from time to time over the years, without anything more registering than the nominal impression. This is inevitable in contemporary poetry, when the numbers of published poets far exceeds any possibility of keeping up with most of them, even by reading one representative slim volume.

And when I picked up her third poetry collection, Habitat, published in 2005, and read the back cover's description of a poet who "bends her ear toward the language of the natural world", I thought that perhaps it would be better if she remained -- to me -- a floating name in the muddy sphere of poetic referencing.

I also thought it an unpromising endeavour to engage with the book's contents since the concerns stated therein -- Nature, with a capital N, and intoned with holy hush -- have been the province of so wide a swath of poets, from beginner to emerging to established, from coast to coast, from rapturous exhorters to quiet observers, that I've found the ground has not only been walked on, but crushed, extracted, turned over, and turned fallow.

But the seeming conformity of content can ironically be seen as a dangerous concentration: when a million poems about hummingbirds, fir trees, and sheep have already seen print, it takes a very good poet to say something new in verse number million-and-one. There's nothing new in content anyway, after all, unless one includes contemporary news. But that's a danger of another kind -- believing that what's new now will have lasting significance.

But I'm beginning to ramble. One reason for the lengthy intro, though, is that these many thoughts, and others besides, were all put into play before I read the first poem. And it speaks to biases I believe many of us have when picking up a book and deciding to read it or not. It's fascinating to me since I've often been let down by a book I'd initially thought I would enjoy, as well as been surprisingly delighted by a book I'd been doubtful about. Habitat falls into the latter category.

Wheeler's observations are underpinned by long, loving, patient study. "This is my church and my clock,/where crocuses rise at Valentine's/and the March full moon forsythia/houses the ghosts who have lived on this upland" from "Who I Am" reveals Wheeler's attitude as one who accepts her surroundings with the complex emotions they invoke rather than one who glazes over them with sentimental inaccuracies.

I also love Wheeler's strong two-ply focus on the hopefulness embedded in "December" where an observation of a hummingbird leads to "how little hope weighs,/rowing the air with its hollow bones" (fantastic!) while also noting with subtle chiding, a critique of sentimental separation in the preceding lines' "Another Emily might have sketched him/into a foreground, backdropped by the cedars/out past the barn."

This habitat, unlike the worlds of many other environmentally focused poets, includes people, and includes them as sympathetic participators, not cardboard cut-out rapacious brutes or complacently cut-off techno-cynics. I like that very much indeed. People aren't spared severe-eyed treatment, though: "We tightroped/the white board fence, one foot, one foot,/above his history lesson" ("Cotton").

There are many lovely sounds scattered throughout Habitat, sounds which serve a greater purpose, but (some of) which I'd like to set down here, anyway, knowing they're missing context: "its thousand lime-green chandeliers. Into this ballroom of bloom and promise" ("Sing a Song of Blackbirds"); "frog caught in a snake's jaws" ("Weeds"); "January, that black and white documentary" ("The Primrose Path").

There are faults, to be sure. Cliches pop up occasionally: "hanging on for dear life"; and "Truth is the scatter of moth wings" recalls the preciousness of Robert Frost's "when Truth broke in" (at least Wheeler's capitalization can be excused for being a sentence-beginner). But I've delighted in reading, rereading, and letting the images and thoughts from Habitat fill my own world.

I'm curious as to why Wheeler seems to be a relatively minor voice in contemporary CanPo. Perhaps the sequestration of Lasqueti Island, her long-time home? Not enough connections, and hence traded talk, resulting in the same kind of story for others as outlined in this review's beginning: the floating name syndrome? Whatever the case, I'd like to think that if her book, in competition (yes, competition) with other poets' books, should fall into the hands of more readers, her stock might increase, perhaps in leaps.

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