Elisabeth Harvor. An Open Door in the Landscape. Kingsville, ON: Palimpsest Press, 2010.
Reviewed by Peter Richardson
Twelve years in gestation, An Open Door in the Landscape, Elisabeth Harvor’s follow up to The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring (1997), holds itself to the same standards she set with her award-winning debut, Fortress of Chairs (1992). Her new book demonstrates the virtues of waiting—and this writer has waited—for a group of robust narratives. Divided into four sections, which move from childhood to early old age, a third of these 26 poems follow the life of a potter’s daughter in mid-20th-century coastal New Brunswick. Two of the early standouts are “Island of Illness,” and “A Voodoo Girl from the Planet of Never.” In the first poem the narrative shifts from a bout of bedridden illness to a decades-old memory of a fawn stumbling into a yard, then forward to an adult love relationship that has left scars. The chronological shifts are seamless, and the deer, which might have been a liability, is kept free of saccharine associations. A few pages further on, we watch the speaker escort a handicapped girl around a camp for the physically challenged and are told: “I could see the inward look / her face carried as she bore down / hard on the buffooned choreography / of her affliction, her bones set to / music nobody could hear.” In the section’s concluding poem, “The Ocean Is After Us,” we encounter “slippery ribbons, half-bitten / into mutilated tassels / of warted moons.” Both “buffooned choreography” and “warted moons” are by no means rare examples of the attentiveness Harvor brings to ear-awakening language in both her lyric narrative and her image-based evocation of landscape. The quality continues in section two, where we graduate into the difficult passage of adolescence. “The Boy in the Book” describes the narrator giving an afternoon’s tour of her father’s kiln barn to a visiting American couple. She imagines their 12-year-old son, who is also along for the tour, being “swamped by shame—” because of her girl’s voice saying “words like heat or hot or torch or fire.” Section three finds the narrator in middle age “in the last era before e-mail, in the last era / before high tech gives short shrift to longing.” Here, in “I Am a Scientist,” a poem that details a bout of paranoia, Harvor demonstrates an aptitude for stinging self-deprecation. A subtle ongoing humour leavens the grave voice speaking to us through a clutch of stalled relationship poems. In “Time or Lightning,” we go from examining a repaired lightning-struck tree to the way in which “in a woman / of a certain age the breasts can still look, // in the pink light of a bedside lamp, / tauntingly young, the nipple un-erect, // [. . .] pink as a baby tucked into / its pebbled nest of pigment.” This “pebbled nest of pigment,” ripples acoustically back through the last few lines and shuts down Harvor’s poem with brio. Aside from “Under Clouds Floating Low,” a poem that digresses too much, and the rambling letter poem, “From a Cousin in Denmark,” I was gobsmacked by this book. Few poets chronicle sleeping disorders, bouts of paranoia and fears of romantic ruin with as acute an ear for phrasing, or as sharp an eye for emotional atmospherics. Harvor makes sleepless nights, mistrusted building superintendants and botched love affairs eminently worth revisiting.
Peter Richardson’s most recent book is Sympathy For the Couriers.