by Carmine Starnino
No small job
A Feature Review
Robyn Sarah. Pause for Breath. Emeryville, ON: Biblioasis, 2009.
Robyn Sarah can’t stop staring, and her poetry—largely set in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood—abounds with things she’s seen: black-garbed Hasids hurrying past, an Italian knife-sharpener ringing his bell, boys larking on a metal balcony. She is always logging some ordinary, and ordinarily unnoticed, moment (“little Eurekas,” she calls them) and many of her poems don’t seem to do much more than set a standard of alert response to her surroundings (“Bars on snow: / fence-shadow, light / from a doorway”). This spectatorship occurs inside a semi-artless style inextricable from the poet’s wished-for invisibility: “Incognito in the little shops / is how I want to go.” Like the ephemera that often turn up in her pocket dramas—raindrops, twigs, breadcrumbs, fluff, dust—Sarah’s poems have a sublime plainness. They are at once down-to-earth and noble, homely and elevated. You might call them Canada’s answer to “sprawl,” Les Murray’s term for Aussie exuberance. Sarah hates filler (her bête noire as a critic is the annual glut of Canadian poetry collections fattened with “warm-ups, misfires, and exercises”). She doesn’t, as she’s sometimes accused, settle for less; she simply believes a little goes a long way. “Make much of something small,” she urges, and lives by it. Her precise descriptive siftings—an avocado “halved lengthwise, hollowed, / salted, dressed with lemon” or a rose in a vase “hung on the limp stalk / of its spent neck”—promote a vision of abundance as composed of luminous bits and pieces that never take up more room than they need.
To “make much,” of course, also means to insist on something beyond a reasonable sense of its importance. This is Sarah’s joke; a way of keeping herself, and her lack of pretentiousness, grounded. At what point, after all, does self-effacement begin to look like it’s peddling its own humility? But then, that is also Sarah’s message to us: have the courage of your banalities. Anyone can write a poem about eggplants, but to state the vegetable’s case as simply and deeply as she does in “A Praga Market,” fixing its traits in unshowy metaphors (“skin / like leather, just wrinkling”), requires a smallness that takes itself seriously, a smallness that dreams big. This of course brings to mind Elizabeth Bishop, a poet also notable for her humble affections (“Homemade, homemade, but aren’t we all?”) But Sarah’s tradition is larger: George Herbert, John Clare, Edward Thomas and William Carlos Williams are all present in her style. She belongs to a school of poets who take things at face value, whose poems represent an obstinate loyalty to the near-at-hand. Only by staying on the surface, they argue, can one find the deepest sounding.
Sarah writes about her kids, her cooking, waiting for mail, snow, birdcalls, running into friends on the street, daydreaming at the window, and middle-of-the-day surprises: an alley filling with the music of a neighbour practicing the English horn. She wants to reprioritize our penchants, to show ordinariness alone is certain good. All this, however, introduces a double bind: by its very existence, a poem represents a large claim being made for a small thing and thus betrays the modesty Sarah seeks to celebrate. This is the signature tension of Sarah’s nine books. Because of it, certain ironies—creatively productive ironies—are available to her that elude more ambitious poets (poets, say, who dress up the slightness of their subjects). Sarah isn’t out to prove insignificance is in eye of the observer. The world, after all, is full of people who believe certain things are beneath their notice—and part of Sarah suspects they have a point. Her poetry, instead, flirts obsessively with ideas of irrelevance: “We are collectors all, and our / collections are collectors too, / collecting dust.”
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