Canadian Poetry Review

current issue
featured poet
poem of the week
lives of the poets
poetry near you
about us
contact us

Past Imperfect, Present Tense
reviewed by Hannah Main - van der Kamp

Past Imperfect, Present Tense
Derk Wynand
Bayeux Arts, 2010


“A man desires and longs after things…” This epigraph from Martin Luther opens Wynand’s eleventh collection of poems in which memory is played with and questioned, and the present is fraught. What does the future forebode?

What is the difference between depression, repression and discretion? “On the Morning of my Father’s Funeral”, the poet describes, in acute detail, a trip across the Burrard Inlet. The voice is that of a (presumably adult) son who is traveling to be present at his father’s funeral. The dry dock, freighters, tugs, cranes are precise documentary photographs as if taken with a Zeiss lens. Not an emotional word; there is not one word in the poem about the father or the funeral. What is the poet conveying? That the father’s funeral means nothing to the son or that the event is too big to look at directly so the son distracts himself by being a lens? Is this askance-ness an evasion, a cover-up or a discrete Northern European Protestant way of avoiding the public display (fear of excess!!!) of emotion? Looking closely at the poem, are there are hints? As in, “spun and bobbed, nudged into place, visibly shifted, slow shadow, hoist, efficient, shuttled, hardly troubled.” Perhaps it is the unrequited, and now never to be realized, longing for deeper connection with the father?

Interesting that the poem immediately after is a plea for looking at things objectively, “without sideways or lowered glance”, “the heart… no longer has a need to win.” In another poem about mood swings, the poet berates himself, “You have let yourself become/ far too slick with the high-protective factor.” This is emotionally complex territory.

The German-Canadian theologian, Ronald Rolheiser, author of The Holy Longing, commenting on St John of the Cross, writes, “ …we are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and which leaves us incurably restless, seeking, longing and insatiably drawn to …unity beyond our selves… it creates a perpetual tension at the centre of both our conscious and unconscious lives. This restless dis-ease constitutes the human spirit. What we do with it is our spiritual life.”

Of the forty-seven poems in this volume, almost one half of them are about travel in Mexico and Cuba. Traveling, Wynand’s disposition, at first, seems sunnier. Is he a little in love with “tristesse”? Even a lightweight poem about blue butterflies includes this word. Nicely observed tropical birds, the bitter aftertaste of tourism, the flash flash of relentless cameras, all add up to dis-ease again. This poet is not a happy tourist. Why not? The pervasive longing has not been left behind at home.

Ache and the easing of it have many names in this volume:” a fist in the chest, wanting, heartache.” Travel adds to the weight of ache; “small birds, the shacks of the poor.” Added to that, writer’s block, the death of parents and the immigrants’ anxious longing to be at home, somewhere.

how all that you’ve wanted to escape
reconstitutes itself inside the gap between
and summons you back.
from “Homesick”

Wynand’s parents immigrated to Canada from Germany when he was eight years old. In a long poem, titled Reconstruction and dedicated to his brother, he recounts the origin and costs of that uprooting. Yet, “The children grew up much like children.” He and his brother learned how to speak “with barely a trace of an accent.” The reconstruction, though it refers personally to the friendship between the brothers and the immigrants who are “sleeping with easier dreams…sometimes laughing, laughing more and more often …good smoke from good chimneys”, has an underlying sense of loss.

What is this ache or longing? In both the poems about the imperfect past and the tense present, there is recognition that whatever that inward tendency is, it’s here to stay and only occasionally alleviated by moments of true lightness.

In another poem, Airborne, (8 pages of thick prose) a solo pilot flies a Cessna over his familiar neighbourhood. “… aware of the uneasy balance of presence and absence”, the pilot surveys the cherished miniature world below, flies in and out of the past, current world events, dreams. It’s a tour de force, breathless,

startling eagles
out of their circular patters and himself too
to ignore the earth, the soil as well as he can, turning
a deaf ear to the buzz and roar of whatever claims
his attention…

So there is a care free Nirvana: flying! If not a cure for the ache, it lifts ache momentarily. The pilot/meta-observer steps out of himself for the bigger picture. He has discovered “the way of non-possession.” He does not need to own or understand all that he views; he just slips in and out of it, breathing. This is a contemplative stance. The opposite of self-absorption though, at times in other poems, the poet narrowly avoids that. It’s playing with longing and loss and satisfactions, all of them shifting, transient states.

Neurochemical theory says that to imagine or remember something deeply is to (re-) experience it. Neurochemical responses do not differentiate between “real” and “imagined.” To fly in a dream, or in a well-imagined poem, relieves because the poet, as far as cell level chemistry is concerned, is flying.

There is another cure for longing: emotional homeopathics. Taking a little more of the substance which ails you completes a process. You just have to go back in there and give that aching a little more expression. Making a poem about aching is like taking arnica for a bruise: it makes a bruise a little more bruised so it can complete and fade away. Sadness can be alleviated by writing about it just a little bit more. Applying homeopathic strategy to the poetics of sadness allows that unrequited longing to get unstuck. There are hints in Past Imperfect that the poet is attempting this. It may be a muse.

Rolheiser again, “We come into life neither restful nor content but precisely, fired by love’s urgent longing, dis-eased, our souls sick in an advantageous way.”

A well-known poem by St John of the Cross includes the lines,

to reach satisfaction in all
desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire nothing

The cover design is unusual and charming; a blue butterfly emerges from a cage that is a man’s head, referring to one of the travel poems. On the back cover, a hand holds up a photograph of Wynand’s mother, Odette, (1920- 2000). The photo speaks volumes.
A young, new-immigrant mother, she smiles openly at the camera, from her perch on a teeter tooter in Stanley Park. Perhaps it is her first visit to that park (where one is not charged admission!). Perhaps she has come to the stage of immigrant life where there is less of the ubiquitous “potato and kidney” and more laughing. She is almost airborne and her smiling gaze invites the viewer to fly with her.

The book’s last poem pays tribute to Odette and ends in the vein of St John’s lines above,

The breath returns to the water.
It rises to the clouds, the cloud
Rise into the blue and the blue
makes room for them. The ache
breathes cloudward, eases into the blue
and behind, where the silences are.

Editor, translator and professor of Creative Writing at UVIC for decades, (now retired), Wynand has a long history of publication. He is a master of form. Except for a risky poem that considers the garden-chewing deer of Saanich as the Albanians in Greece, there is not one word out of place or an awkward line. If anything, Wynand is sometimes painfully precise and polished. Little things like an insect bite can obsess him but then “little things are very large up close.” This line from Shiki illustrates Wynand’s characteristic poetics.
One hopes that the future is not foreboding but will include, either in real airspace or in dreams, a lot more flying.

learning to abandon the need to see everything
imagined or real, letting go the fear of blindness
taking the constellation as they come and assigning
no names to them, allowing them to rearrange themselves
and letting them go, not wanting the darkness filled
not needing the silence cluttered with cries of triumph
or loss, approving the lack of approval, not fearing fear,
not loving love, not hating hatred, not thinking thoughts
about thinking, without mouthing words that cannot add up
to truth or falsehood, flying over the world’s thin skin
and grazing it lightly, borne by nothing but air.

Not wanting the darkness filled; a mystic might have written that.

Poet, editor, reviewer, Hannah Main – van der Kamp lives on the Upper Sunshine Coast where she watches sea planes and reads the Spanish mystics.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #16