All Soul’s Day is a day of prayer to help the dead trapped in purgatory on their journey to heaven. It is celebrated in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches; the latter observes several All Souls’ Days throughout the year. In some parts, most notably Mexico, it is celebrated as the Day of the Dead.
The title poem in Rhea Tregebov’s newest collection constitutes a thoroughly secular take on the notion. Often when a poet brings together a collection from seemingly disparate elements, a unifying concept comes only after much reflection, and this was likely the process here. “All Souls’ Day” is a poem that succeeds in its limited aims, but it is not by any stretch a major poem. Nevertheless, that doesn’t take away from the power of the concept in giving the collection scope and resonance. However slender the thread, it does serve to string these pearls together; and there are definitely some pearls. Consider the first poem in the collection. I quote in full:
D’un certain âge
The poem wakes you at seven on a Sunday.
You want to sleep. It’s been a tough week.
Who knows how long you twisted
in your unsatisfactory bed after switching off
the TV. The light. At half-past midnight.
You thought all the poems had grown up
and left home. You didn’t expect to find one
putting its little hands on your face.
What a delightful final line! Redolent of e.e. cummings’ famous “nobody, not even the rain, has such tiny hands,” yet it is natural and original enough to be fresh. In her effortless, plain-spoken way, Tregebov sets the scene: the narrator, middle-aged, living in solitude after divorce, the children grown, yet inspiration comes unbidden, new, always child-like, even though childhood and the time of children would seem long past.
From the deeply personal, Tregebov branches out into poems concerning crises facing society (the subprime mortgage implosion and our chaotic, terror-ridden, seemingly random “undecade”) and the planet (global warming and war). Perhaps the most ambitious poem in the collection is “The Gardens of the Antarctic,” a dense, speculative work about the decadent floral tangle that will take root in the nether regions after global warming and environmental catastrophe have wrought havoc, wiping humans from the planet. It concludes, “…although they may blossom, may in their own turn/alter the air with their breath… this is the poem/we won’t be here to read,/the one we wouldn’t wish to.
Similarly in “Le Temps des cerises,” an activity as innocuous as cherry-compote making becomes a full-scale slaughter, “spatter incarnadine, my hands bloodied,” a meditation on the sacrifice of animals, and of the planet itself. “To some/perhaps it’s comforting to think of the Earth/scratching its ear (good dog!) and us no more than fleas on its coat: a good scrub,/a sprinkling of powder and all/is well again.”
A middle section of the book, entitled Bridges, is, aside from a notable poem concerning Jacob wrestling angels, a series of passing chords, albeit with a few adroit touches and flourishes. A final section, “Family Dinners” returns to the theme of family and all that implies, with poems about reunion, aging of relatives, and a father with Alzheimer-like symptoms.
In its unobtrusive way, this book concerns elegiac themes of passing, mortality, and how we all in our semi-conscious way are a kind of living dead that need, in the form of friendship, love, and support, assistance in our passage. At the same time, a number of poems effectively celebrate the luxuriance of nature, fertility, inspiration, food and spices–a feast of All Souls, in other words.
In its way, Tregebov’s All Souls’ is a secular prayer.
Brian Campbell is a Montreal poet and reviewer. His latest collection is Passenger Flight (Signature Editions, 2009.)