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Steven Heighton, The Waking Comes Late
Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press, 2016

Heighton opens his sixth collection with “The Last Sturgeon,” where a man “always walked / a little above his life / not knowing it was / his life, while it waned / from walking-coma / to coma,” introducing a theme of emotional disconnection that runs throughout The Waking Comes Late. In the titular poem, a man laments his knowledge of plant life has come too late to share with his mother, and in “All Rivers Arrive,” a woman weeps over her dying mother, unable to express what she wishes she had while the mother was coherent, before cancer took control. And in two early poems about having a crushed larynx, the speaker considers the things he should have said before his power of speech was imperilled: “I meant to tell you, I / thought I told you / I couldn’t / quite.” In these excellent poems, Heighton shows how technical mastery can merge with acutely relevant subject matter to great effect. In fact, when it comes to language, Heighton is a remarkably efficient poet: I rarely find, as I often do when reading Canadian poetry, myself mentally editing as I go along. Words here are too precious to be left out of place, whether his own or those of others.

The most salient feature of The Waking Comes Late is actually that Heighton’s translations—approximations he calls them—are spread throughout the book. His previous two collections featured separate sections of translations, ghettoizing them as it were and, I suspect, inadvertently inviting readers to ignore them. Here, ten translations from various Europeans—and Heighton should be praised for being one of the few Canadian poets who embraces translation as a regular part of his creative process—are woven throughout the book. This gives the collection a more organic feel, especially when one of his poems directly interacts with a translation, such as when a version of Georg Trakl’s “An End” leads to a poem about a Trakl suicide attempt, or when a translation of Anna Akhmatova’s “Lot’s Wife” gives rise to Heighton’s thoughts on Lot himself.

The poems in The Waking Comes Late oscillate between the closely personal, as in “Inspired by a Line by Paul Celan”—“Each day I wake feeling I’ve already failed,”— to the political, as in “Baffled in Ashdod, Blind in Gaza,” which is about Eden Abergil, an Israeli soldier who gloatingly posed online with bound Palestinian prisoners. Between the internal and external, translations often serve as mediator. In a short grouping of poems on war, the lack of social assistance for a traumatized returning soldier in “Coronach, Post-Kandahar” is mirrored in Kóstas Karyotákis’ “Mikhaliós,” which in turn leads to “Humanitarian War Fugue,” a piece written from the point of view of a soldier whose propagandistic self-justifications (“The notions we killed for were sterling”) are a psychological defense mechanism against his field actions.

Heighton does not write about war directly, but about its torturous aftereffects, the ways it infiltrates a person, regardless of victory or loss. It’s just another way he explores the emotional withdrawal and lack of empathy that forms the spawning ground for human cruelty. Recently awarded?the Governor General’s Award, The Waking Comes Late is a rare book that successfully combines intellect with guts and deep feeling.

 

Christopher Doda is a poet, editor and critic living in Toronto. He is the author of two collections, Among Ruins and Aesthetics Lesson and is currently working on a book of glosas based on hard rock and heavy metal lyrics, to be titled Glutton for Punishment. He is also the Series Editor of the annual Best Canadian Essays.

 

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