The prevailing atmosphere of Sandra Ridley’s fourth collection Silvija is one of smothering gloom. Comprising four longish movements broken by a series of short refrains, the poems vary somewhat in terms of style and address, but their subject matter returns obsessively to sites of old trauma. Certain recurring motifs (abuse, the death of a child, the woods) flicker past again and again, just out of focus, as if glimpsed through dark water. Because these details are left obscure, it’s natural to wonder if, say, the dead child in the opening poem is the same as the figure buried in the last, or if the images simply rhyme in grief. The fact is, sifting the text for clues is the wrong way to go about it, no matter how the intimacies of its internal conversations might seem to beckon you. Ridley is too controlled and perhaps too cautious a writer to leave in some overlooked key for decrypting the work. Per the publisher’s blurb, the collection “is a linguistic embodiment of psychological suffering, physical abuse, and terminal illness,” which sounds about right. The cumulative effect is abstract, suggestive, like a classical dirge or the drowned, ambient techno of Wolfgang Voigt (Gas).
Like her BookThug compatriot Christine McNair, an Ottawa language poet who might be Ridley’s closest comparable, Ridley’s poems call for clipped, precise enunciation, their momentum carried forward by sympathies of consonance and assonance. Unlike McNair though, whose poems tend to skip from word to word as though across stepping stones, Ridley finds means to restrict or complicate the poems’ progress. Much of her past work has been radically sparse on the page, engendering a tentativeness or carefulness in the reader as they learn how to proceed. (Her four collections form a motley crew on any shelving unit, inconsistently-sized squares tailored to her expansive use of the horizontal plane.) Silvija is more conventional in its arrangements, its devices internalized. Two of the major poems make heavy use of the virgule ( / ). Though the content is as emotionally raw and violent as anything Ridley’s done to date, the words are straitjacketed into orderly, box-like stanzas, while the lines themselves are repeatedly slashed into smaller units:
|Our dead call out our dead / you show your filthy face
You useless tit/ you runt / you piece of shit / a shame
Unleashed by plain-talk / begging before a threshing
From the old butcher / your leather strap / unbelted
It can feel like listening to someone describe a horrific experience in a dull monotone: here, the barriers become the only way to keep a crying jag in hand; there, you recognize signs of a tightly controlled fury. Perhaps any victim of trauma must compartmentalize portions of their experiences in order to proceed. Elsewhere, the strictures are relaxed: “Vigil/Vestige” is Ridley at her most traditionally lyrical, while the prose-like “Clasp” has a composed, epistolary tone, falling apart with sorrow, line by unexaggerated line.
While Ridley’s past work has explored themes of trauma through various conceptual lenses (nuclear fallout, clinical psychology etc.), Silvija feels like the dark heart of her ongoing fixation. It is both her purest work and her least dynamic. Something about the publisher’s choice of the word “embodiment” jabs at me, hints at a difference between an embodiment of feeling and an evocation. Speaking about the craft of turning personal experience of trauma into memoir, poet Brecken Hancock has emphasized “the artifice that must shape who is speaking and why that person is speaking: [how] the narrator is fashioned into a persona.” In Ridley’s other books, the specialized language and tropes of her subjects provided a stage, an exterior context within which the persona comes into focus. Silvija delves so deeply into the experience of having been traumatized that the outside world appears only as flashes of memory, or an unanswering void. Queerly, being held so closely obstructs deeper connection with the work. It inspires sympathy more readily than empathy.
Silvija’s recent Griffin nomination is a welcome confirmation of Ridley’s place in the first rank of Canadian poetry. New readers, however, might be better off starting with 2011’s dazzling Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press), one of the finest collections of the past ten years. If her latest is a less revelatory read, it is still recommended for those frequent moments when the branches clear to reveal some small and perfect thing:
|Roots / bare earth’s upheaval / oathing / opening
Downturned / downward / your burying spade.
JM Francheteau’s reviews appear or will appear in Arc, CV2 and Broken Pencil. His poetry’s recently been in The Puritan, Bad Nudes, CV2 and a chapbook, kids (Hurtin’ Crüe Press).
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