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Rain; road; an open boat
reviewed by Yvonne Blomer

Rain; road; an open boat
Roo Borson
McClelland & Stewart
2012, 88 pages, $18.99


When Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida came out and was shortlisted and then won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2005, I was living in England. I travelled to Ireland for the poetry festival where I heard Borson and Charles Simic, the Griffin’s international winner, read. I was instantly captured by Borson’s tone and voice in the memoir-like haibun-ish poems.

In Rain; road; an open boat, Borson’s work, again slides between forms. This collection of poems reads like snippets of memory, moments captured and dream-like memories. One prose paragraph flows into its finishing haiku into the next short prose into a long lineated poem. It is as if Borson is letting the words take precedent and fall into whatever form they wish, like the carver who finds the shape that lies in the wood already. Here prose and poetry, dream and experience collide into haiku and haibun and epigrams and lineated poems. Not always strictly haibun, not always strictly lyrical poetry, not necessarily autobiographical. Here are poems that hold the reader in a deep conversation that excites and calms in turn.

To suggest that Borson simply allows the language to fall into any form is to suggest that there is no hand in there, no intent or craft. This would be a falsehood, but perhaps in the finest crafted poem, or work of art, the piece is so a part of its creator, reflective of her, that the places where the writer separates herself from the work is seamless. Perhaps the reader can bring what they imagine of the writer back to the piece as well as what they imagine of themselves.

In Rain; road; an open boat Borson begins with “Various Landscapes” a poem that pulls you in with a haiku:

The narrow
guest bed –
what will you dream?

She then expands on this image in a paragraph that is grounded in a specific but unnamed house; grounded in specific details – “This is the moment chanterelles and beletus come up” without any specifics of place or character. This imbues the prose with a dream-like quality. As the entry point to the collection, this poem gives a suggestion of form – the haibun – and of approach – image and details. The details almost abstracted so that the reader wonders where is here, and then begins to forget to wonder and simply sits in anticipation of image or moment or shift.

Where Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida uses chapter breaks to separate shifts in form, Rain; road; an open boat is not as concerned with separating forms into sections so that we naturally move from the opening haibun into a series of prose poems, to a haiku, to a lineated poem to italicised prose.

Borson evokes place in many poems such as “Durham” and “A Place in the Woods”. In these poems we know exactly where she or the narrator is (I read them as personal poetic narratives), but not who she is with or at what point in time. Sometimes we have no idea where exactly the narrator is speaking from, but the details are so exact. Sometimes, I was stopped in a poem wanting to know where and with whom and sometimes the images allowed me to let go of that curiosity. Perhaps an emergent form here in specificity made vague by, perhaps, protecting the personal experience from the experience of the poem.

The second section of the book, “Rain; Road” is my favourite. Here Borson blends the haibun with the epigram so that there are delightful haiku and then there are quietly funny epigrams:

Having been told at different times in my life that I am gifted, stupid, beautiful, homely, have perfect pitch and a tin ear, I’ve now begun to wonder on what grounds anyone’s opinions can be taken seriously. But then this is the opinion of a person who is gifted, stupid, beautiful, homely, with perfect pitch and a tin ear –

And my other favourite:

There should be a plant whose common name is False Patience. And another called False Promise. Maybe the most delicately structured of the thus-far unnamed common plants, one with feathery fronds and tiny yellow flowers, should be called False Promise. How beautiful it would be, now that spring is here, to walk through the meadow rife with False Start.

I remember from Short Journey... that Borson had left poetry, or it had left her, for a while and this collection was experientially a way back to writing; a way of exploring if poetry still had meaning for her. Her parents’ deaths left her in a place of deep mourning and loss. In Rain; Road there is no doubt, there is no hesitation. What was a deep exploration of how poetry might still be a part of Borson’s life in Short Journey is more a personal meditation on place and how its meaning changes over time. Through form, Borson explores what it means to be alive and mortal in the natural world with its ever-present human influences.
Perhaps, in poetry, something is happening. A blending of lineated poems and prose poems or memoir or poetic memoir or lyrical narrative, or each poet being teased toward the form of memoir to dabble in language and in personal story. In Roo Borson’s work there is prose that reads as lyric memoir. Look to Betsy Warland’s Breathing the Page, a book centered on reading and writing, where she has written personal prose that is pure poetry. Look at Arleen Pare’s recent novel Leaving Now and see fiction that is lyric and autobiographical.

Yvonne Blomer’s first book a broken mirror, fallen leaf was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Yvonne Blomer is the Artistic Director of Planet Earth Poetry in Victoria BC. Her most recent collection of poetry is The Book of Places (Black Moss Press).

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #17