Susan Briscoe’s poetry is one of telling details, subtle hints and indications. The Crow’s Vow, her first collection, follows the slow breakup of a marriage as it is reflected in the passage of the seasons around the couple’s cabin in the woods. What most readers in our story-based culture would expect to make up the central plot – the scenes from the marriage – is reduced to a hazy, thinly evoked background, while what normally would comprise the background becomes the poet’s chief focus: the trees, the garden, the foxes and mice, and hints of happiness, resentment and tensions as projected by her states of mind.
Here Briscoe follows minimalist traditions inherited from such diverse sources as Sappho, Dickinson, H.D., and the Japanese, and is poetically on solid ground. Perhaps too much of the main story, however, is left untold.
The first two poems set the pattern: six to eight brief lines describing the natural surroundings, followed by two to four lines of question, commentary, or ironic twist. The tradition of ten-line poetry – called decastitch in some rulebooks – has had a number of notable practitioners, but most often in the West has taken the form of a shortened sonnet (or “sonnetina”). Briscoe’s form – five brief, unrhymed couplets – is airy, delicate, unique to her, and she handles it well. In the first poem, she deftly evokes the beauty and impersonality of nature:
An icy mist,
no mountains this morning.
followed by a suggestion of constraint
The world is a smaller circle.
A call to observation
and a return to the immediate surroundings
ribbons of deer tracks
strung across the snow
and three brown apples
that never fell.
is concluded by a disturbing innuendo regarding the man she is with:
all along the edges.
The following poem, which begins as an ode, of sorts, to spring, ends in pure vinegar:
We wake to a field mouse,
soft brown fur and clean white belly.
I could skin the whole family,
stitch pretty mittens.
Clearly, not all is as well as might appear. What emerges is that the narrator is sharing this idyllic surrounding with a man utterly unsuitable to her. He is obtuse, self-centred, incompetent – a complainer, insisting on his way. She has to teach him “to buttress the rows,” while “You/resist, want this to be easier.” He is compared to the crows: what he brings to the relationship are “shiny bits and baubles/a crow’s cache/of electronics and appliances” — but “not once have you danced,/and I have yet to hear you sing.”
In this he is redolent of certain stock male characters of Atwood, Laurence or Shields – oafish dullards who go by monosyllabic “grunt” names like Bruce or Jeff. Here, though, the crow goes unnamed – and he never speaks for himself; we hear her slights and commentary, but we never really hear his vow. If he spoke, if he entered these poems a little more, it might rattle the controlled cages of these verses, but render something emotionally richer. Instead, he disappears into abstraction, “hard to see … across the hectares of corn.” To give the poet her due, this leads to self-criticism: “Were I honest, I’d admit to being deaf/as well as blind.”
Despite these astringencies, however, there is a warm rhythm to the collection as it progresses through the seasons of nature and of this failed relationship. Amid its keen observation, exquisite detail and masterful rendering of the passage of time, the poet’s misgivings – like this critic’s quibble – become like the cawing of crows, disappearing into the distance.
Brian Campbell’s second collection is Passenger Flight. It is reviewed here in the Rover.