In Patient Frame, Kingston-based poet, novelist and short-story writer Steven Heighton trains an unremitting eye on tragic loss: the deaths of a friend, fellow artist, relative, or stranger; the passing of childhood innocence; and on a larger, historical scale, some of cruelest episodes our condition has to offer. The controlling metaphor is a camera, a dispassionate lens held by a documentarist compelled to “stare and stare,” who must keep a tight lid on personal sorrow and outrage to record not only the inevitable gaps and blurs but the most trenchant, heartrending details.
Most of these poems are tightly-constructed free- or blank-verse narratives a page or page and a half long. One feels an accomplished novelist at work: indeed, many of these poems, while sufficient unto themselves, call to be fleshed into novels. The reading gets heavy and, frankly, heavy-handed at times as one is taken through scenes from the Viet Nam war, a lynching in the deep South, sexual abuse of choir boys, a deer turned into roadkill, a corpse-strewn battlefield from the Norman invasion of 1066. At certain points, this reader wanted to say, Lighten up, friend. At others, though, he said, Go on, probe these depths.
In his best pieces, Heighton achieves elegiac magnificence. Standouts include Another of the Just, which frames the courage and heroism of Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who did his best to interfere with the Lt. Calley massacre at My Lai; Outram Lake, a poem on the passing of Richard Outram; and Ribs, about the ingenious music lovers in a Soviet hospital who produced contraband western rock recordings using old X-ray discs. The Last Reader is a touching and personal account of a dying mother reading her son’s first book, unable, however much she tries, to take it in: in the narrow beam of the lamplight, “in the still-encrypted world/she and her son the last reader and writer.” Some Other Just Ones, meanwhile, signifies a definite break in the mood: this is a celebratory catalogue of quirky, unsung heroes who “without knowing it, are saving the world.”
If there is any lightness in this collection, his fifth, it is in Heighton’s linguistic musicality, his deft and knowing play with nuance. An exemplary passage:
Pry me open. The skull
a chatroom run by monkeys, chittering, stoned,
a roach hotel, round-the-clock arcade, a gym
for obsessives, shadow-boxing. And in the end:
that haiku helm where fields’ last cricket grieves
summer in a voice faint as a codicil.
At the end of his collection are 14 translations of authors as diverse as Borges, Villalta, Apollinaire, and Wang Wei. It is to the author’s credit that his own best work measures up to these. These “approximations,” as he calls them, range from competent to outstanding; at the very least, they signify international awareness, an ambition to go beyond insular Canadian themes to embrace a larger reality.
Brian Campbell’s second collection is Passenger Flight. It is reviewed here in the Rover.