Monday, 18 February 2013

Making a Big Deahl






Rooms the Wind Makes by James Deahl, (Guernica Editions, 2012) 160 pp.


Reading the poetry of Sarnia-based poet James Deahl in the winter months is like drinking a cup of camomile tea in a cardigan with a bit of Bach playing softly in the background. Take the second part of “Sweet Goldenrod” as highly representative, in terms of imagery and pacing, of this beautiful work:

Far out at sea
the swell slides under
fierce black hulls,
our steeled fleet.

The ship moves like a woman.
A spray of goldenrod
fills the cabin
with yellow light.

Somewhere the blind are singing.
Their voices carry
the passion of water,
the night’s slow salt.

Rooms the Wind Makes embodies the subtle breath of season, the splash and snaps of nature; the poems, though rich in lines and stanzas, infused with the essence of haiku.

In “Abandoned Brickworks,” Deahl illustrates the strength that nature carries in its reclamation process: “Let the snows of winter / purify this place of toil; let spring rains raise lilies / where fires burned the daytime black.”

One of the collection’s most vivid highlights is the quadruplexed, “Beyond Pigment: lines suggested by some Russian artists,” including paintings by Boris Frantsuzov and Kim Britov. That Deahl is able to take what’s on the canvas and convey its contents within the realm of descriptive verse attests to the insight of his visual attunement.

There is deafening silence in Rooms the Wind Makes – in “Emma’s World,” it speaks in places unexpected:

Stones lie concealed
by creepers and dogbane
on the forest floor; they are
the stones of forgiveness,
the mineral murmur of lost prayers.
Our angels fall asleep
in their sycamores.

Any girl could go astray here
in these hollows creeks carved –
the silence between words
an iron tongue
locked in her body’s ossuary;
her hands, like water,
seeking their own level.

From the outset, the poems hark back to Deahl’s memorable translation of the 8th-century Chinese poet Tu Fu’s work found in The River’s Stone Roots (Serengeti Press, 2005). Like Tu Fu’s short but poignant lines about nature and the concurrent episodes of loneliness, a similar narrative voice is adopted here throughout the book’s half-dozen sections. Though not in an immediate milieu of war as Tu Fu had been, the echoed sounds of the environment nevertheless offer an atmosphere of meditative, solitary reflection.

Darkness and light pirouette in a number of these pieces, and the seasonal changes arrive like clockwork, leaving the poet to respectfully observe, and, true to the Zen-like manner of a haiku, render no judgement in the process.

Of farmers’ houses in the dead of winter, Deahl writes, “Amid the bare trees / they are the bells of loneliness / wintering out the dark months, / waiting for spring / to strike them pure.”

The loss of summer’s foliage and the coming of the cold with its accompanying dirge is declared multiple times. As Deahl notes on the book’s back cover, life’s brevity and the inevitable suffering it brings are themes to be explored here – in part at least, to honour the work of Denise Levertov, in conjunction with nature’s fleeting beauty which both poets often speak of.

The forlorn ghosts of the past are mimicked in the falling leaves, the frozen bodies of water. Deahl’s years spent in the Appalachians provides just one of the backdrops to the poetic pictures drawn while each vignette gives us the sense of “passing by” – as though we are travellers accompanying the poet on his return to places never static, ever-changing. And there is no shortage of Canadian landscapes either, like Fundy, described as “A land so sharp / it falls away in screes / as it rushes to reach the bay / where great tides sweep / and withdraw to cleanse / the land of memory.”

There are many moments of deeply personal revelations. Back in Ontario, Deahl writes In The Wet Fields:    

The deaths accumulate.
So many friends reside in paradise
or have turned to nothing under the ground.
The storm moves off and I don’t know
if I should pray in these wet fields
or follow the lightning
as far as it goes.

There are a number of dedications in the book’s closing section, “Dark Honey” – artists from another time and another land having their names and work brought to our attention, like Russian sculptress Adelaida Pologova. Deahl carries her sorrow along with his own, scribing “The longest day of the year / offers its grey wind to the capital; / it blows from the east, from that forgotten / realm where the fathers vanished. This is all / Adelaida can know; this and her child’s laughter.”

The concluding poems become more familial, with maternal and paternal grandparents cited in the continuing dedications.  And here there are sicknesses, cancers, deaths and burials. On his father’s passing, Deahl notes “His hands were the claws of a great raptor, / each yellowed nail clutching at life. No letting go.”

The finale, “Foundations,” is a statement of hope found in the juice of mulberries, in the green of trees, their testimony to creation and their prophetic voice. “To learn to love this world one must learn to / love the silence it makes ...”

Amidst the violence in the natural and human worlds, somehow peace and calm are imparted by James Deahl in a manner that only the most seasoned of poets could have brought to the page.


– Andreas Gripp




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