“It was the precise angle of the sun falling across my table, one September morning,” Robyn Sarah wrote in a recent essay, “My Montreal,” “that made me recognize where I was and remember that wonderful old diner…” Scenes like this, in which the present allows the past to reach into it, are replete in her new collection of poems, My Shoes are Killing Me. Sometimes a memory ambushes her in a poem, in the same way many of the scenes in the essay are illuminated, though often the poems in this volume are questions the speaker can’t answer, having to do with dwindling time, i.e., the wonder and bewilderment of time’s passage.
To assign this book the mere valences of nostalgia or memory would oversimplify it, however. In the nine-movement poem cycle “My Shoes are Killing Me” Sarah writes about the Dominion Observatory Time Signal heard on the radio: “This is not a lost sound. / But the child who heard it back then / is a lost child, / and I prefer to leave it undisturbed in her ears,” as if she is in the present trying to communicate with the self who, now lost, must at least keep the sound ‘undisturbed,’ or faithful to the time it was heard by that child self. This is a layering of memory; not just the memory of hearing the sound signal but of being in the moment, in the body of the child, hearing it then. The sequence closes with the line, “The beginning of the long dash / for that child.”
In the next section of the poem sequence, this somatic mnemonic conceit continues as the poet remembers the physical agility of the child jumping from a topmost step, and the impact of landing on the cement which she likens to birth: “Like a doctor’s slap / on the day we first draw breath—”. This kind of physical detail—bodily impact, familiar sounds like the long dash—give the poems a palpable immediacy and simultaneously empty them entirely of having any palpable design on us. Absent of the hackneyed critique of capitalism or other allusions or cerebral crutches, these are instances of experiential empathy, I want to call it: one of Sarah’s best devices.
Even when at the end of the sequence, in “Enough,” as the poem veers into the familiar landscape of the empty-nest household of true middle age, with reckonings like “Sons towered over us. / Daughters, calling long distance, / asked hard questions” and then “It was the beginning of knowing / we were running out of days… late nights so quiet I could hear my / pen scratching paper” it seems she is in top form, bringing wisdom that reckons with existential angst: “sometimes I thought I could hear / a different wind stirring in the trees, / and sometimes I thought one could learn / to find Enough again, / to let what-used to-be-enough / (summer’s cut running out) / be enough—given a few more years.”
Both “Breach” and “Lacunae” capture in concentrated form what Robyn is most preoccupied with in this book, I believe. The poems describe a certain self-alienation forged in a lapse of time from past to present. “Breach” ends, “It could at any moment pour rain / on your bare arms— / You mistook this for happiness” while “Lacunae” begins, “Why am I sad tonight? / As if in answer, the rain.” “Breach” places the subject at age nineteen, not alone because she had company, perhaps a summer boyfriend, yet nonetheless aware of aloneness: “you weren’t alone that day, but you were / alone.” “Lacunae” on the other hand is a lone rumination, a self-talk from a writer, asking with the wisdom of years beyond age nineteen, “What is the wall that divides us / from our shining?” These two moving poems, considered together, are the gist of the book, even though they are relatively short compared to many others. The young speaker hugs to herself, despite some noncommittal presence holding her hand that day, “some kind of inner blissful hard pure / aloneness that felt like treasure,” as if she has in reserve something far from the temporary world, maybe poetry, maybe a keener awareness of the world as she senses “having embarked on open waters / in the frailest of crafts.”
The older speaker in “Lacunae” sees “ghosts of old stairways” clinging to buildings and only wants to hear herself writing. She has seen what remains, and there is some knowledge there from experience telling her to keep her pen moving, that it is the only way to escape impending mortality. So we can infer that Robyn kept for herself that “blissful hard pure aloneness” from youth to middle age, a sort of shield against fading away. I don’t think that is a sadder than necessary inference of what underscores many of these poems, even as the innocence and melancholy of youth comes up frequently only to fade into acceptance or at the very least, end up considered with detached observation.
And some proof of this blissful creative energy she kept for herself, it seems, comes with the last poem of the book, “Belief.” Beginning by asking herself the question, “If I were a word / what word would I be?” the poet launches into a close observation of a leaf in a pond, describing in detail its meanderings and movements, movements that happen “of its own volition” on an otherwise still tree. While it can be read as a sadness-in-things poem, the question posed at the outset draws us back to the poet’s “hard pure aloneness” and physical existence, moving along in life despite the inexorable movement of time which becomes a greater concern as she ages. She is ageing in moments that are still possible as captured beauty, the result of the perseverance of the writing, in this case capturing the physical properties of the leaf, imagining herself, “I would as leif be / one of these leaves.”
While the book plays a few notes off-key, I admit the title, My Shoes Are Killing Me, rings false given my own perceptions of these poems as a whole. It reminds me of the comedienne Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, which doesn’t jibe here, even though it’s a reference to the death of an aunt in “My Shoes Are Killing Me,” (the aunt, having loosened her shoes while sitting in a chair, has a heart attack) and therefore seems an appropriate title from the standpoint of the collection being about a fleeting life.
And the last line of “When We Were Slaves in Egypt,” a somewhat unremarkable poem that reminiscences on Passover celebrations from the poet’s childhood and mementoes she has uncovered, seems dissonant too, like advertisement copy from a car rental franchise and altogether wrong in the poem: “Je me souviens. A motto you can make your own.” When not dissonant, the less successful poems resort to cracker-barrel simplicity of the kind that neither enlightens us, nor engages the rest of the book’s sharp observations and original thinking. In “Far From Home,” the speaker “waits / because she knows the heart as home” and this heart is juxtaposed with the “tugging mind” – it indulges a surface interiority; some kind of rumination about one’s thoughts versus one’s feelings, presumably, but bereft of any of the precise details that would allow the self-talk to be meaningful. Rather, the poem sounds like a commercial greeting card. The last line is “Waits for her heart to find her.” It’s surprising that uninteresting lines such as these –somewhat frequent in poems at the end of the book—are authored by one who has been otherwise extremely adept, graceful, and moving in shoring the concrete details of a life, in both poetry and prose, over her long writing career.
Biblioasis | 72 pages | $18.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1771960137