Saturday, December 1, 2012

Mona Fertig’s The Unsettled

The quintessential West Coast poem has the author-narrator reclining on a bamboo rocker while gazing across the Juan de Fuca Strait’s expanse, haze or fog acting as all-purpose counterpoint to the setting sun. As a representative image in The Unsettled, Mona Fertig’s 2010 collection of poetry, it’s unfair to link it so. But as metaphor for vague longing or disturbance vs spiritual satisfaction (if not realization), it’s an apt image throughout the book. Then again, there’s “Quiet lights thread along a distant road across the bay” from a poem in the middle movement.

Fertig’s loosely-linked diary ruminations accrue in five sections. The opening series of poems depict a personal journey to, in, and from Mackie House, a heritage home that seeks out and accepts artist-visitors for overnight (and longer) stays. Her trip links the House’s more lurid histories – suicides, hauntings – with a personal fear of the unknown. It’s a fantastic idea for an extended suite, but Fertig drops the ball. The hauntings are a tease, the personal demons unexpressed and undifferentiated (a mother bear and her cubs appear several times like dazed refugees from an overpopulated Yosemite). Stupefying cliches follow in their wake: “[B]lack as night”, “dim light is still depressing”. After another desultory patch, the break between subsection 18 and 19 (out of 22) clumsily splices the scene into “After two weeks in residence/it is time to leave.” Three lines later, “I am glad to be back on Salt Spring.” And in the longer final subsection, “Chief-White-Buffalo-Man-Many-Feathers/from the Okanagan Nation” gives the House emergency cleansing. Would that the reader was so fortunate. Fertig’s final lines: “I try to settle on words for this journey./But find only/mystery and relief.” And here we have it. The journey has nothing for the reader. It’s a poet (any person, really) talking out loud to any stranger who’ll listen. The connection, the concern, is a closed circuit. I would have loved to have found out something about those ghosts (which would have been real mystery), and about the other people living in the area, the wildlife surrounding it, and a fearless self-appraisal in relation to it all. Don’t blame me for setting the bar so high. The structure of the series invited it. Fertig’s real relief: the Chief was able to eradicate three lingering negative spirits that followed her back to Salt Spring. So much for living with ghosts.

Sections two and three are ostensibly a clear shift – the narrator follows, somewhat uneasily, a young homeless girl as she tries to survive outdoors in the mild climate that attracts other uprooted souls from the harsher environs of Canada. But again, Fertig’s investigations only serve to show she’s sensitive. Barebones, obvious rhetorical ponderings punctuate the poems here: “Where will your spirit wander then?”  At this point, the curious reader may be forgiven for wondering what’s up with all the italics. Has my computer been taken over by a random insurgent text from unquiet ghosts upset by the last paragraph? Alas, it’s both much simpler and more puzzling than that. For whatever reason, Fertig seems to believe that emphasizing certain phrases baptizes them with a kind of permanent poetic dew, encasing the chosen words in a fixed freshness and profundity.

Section four is a rather superior admonishment to a wayward husband. The connection couldn’t be more unconvincing. The viewpoint shifts after several poems from third- to second-person. The suffering wife, in a poem entitled “Tsunami”, undergoes “the tidal wave of grief”. Proportion? Why tamp down an emotion sure to gain its rightful share of sympathetic readers? And poor hubby. I’m not implying anything, understand. (And the relationship could be purely fictitious. Who knows?) But with unsolicited, unimaginative, high- and heavy-handed advice like “Look at the ocean and the stars./See the power in the wide oak”, I’m guessing his scary and desperate boat trip to the great beyond was a last, unsuccessful attempt to get away from “a goddess” who “still fits you like a glove”.

The last section is supposedly a paean to Salt Spring Island itself. Local history was incorporated in a clumsy and distracted fashion. There were some decent attempts to contrast the older boomers with their more restless offspring or with recent transients, but the images didn’t leave much of a residue, and for a 5 1/2 page closer, with its ambitious fifteen-repeater “This is Paradise,”  kicking off each verse paragraph, there was too little euphoria and too much flotsam.

The Unsettled is Fertig’s thirteenth book of poetry, the last five arriving via her (and her husband’s) own press.

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