Wednesday, August 21, 2013

That Other Beauty - Karen Enns

Today's book of poetry:  That Other Beauty.  Karen Enns.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  2010.

Karen Enns' first volume of poetry, That Other Beauty, is a very promising debut.  Enns employs a gem cutter's vision when crafting these very precise poems.

The Smallest Thing

It wasn't that he looked at her with warmth
or tenderness.  He often looked away.
It wasn't that they read each other's minds--
there she drew a blank--
or that he needed her.

It was the unrelenting line of his jaw,
a certain stillness in his gestures,
and once, walking on the bridge,
he put his hand
flat against her back,
the lowest part,
and there were lilacs.


These poems are clear cut narratives free of an extraneous fluff.  The tone Enns creates in poem after poem is one of crisp lines, subtle cuts.  What appears simple is in fact the jeweller's/poet's revelation of the choicest facet.

Shadows on the Roof

Slow rain again and softly,
softly knocking on the door.
The gulls are sullen with the sound, a sinking
long in darkness, open-mouthed, and moss
accepting weight without its grain.  We know
no better here.  No more or less.
A movement in the firs like breathing
and the first stunned limb of night
breaks through the crest, the first call
from the bones of trees becomes a hollow stone,
the shell of light, a moon.
To wait for something closer now,
something drawing in:  a raven
gives itself to the clear, bright density of rain,
to the sound of our hands
beating back the wash
as the trees lean into nothingness,
their branches bleeding light.


"their branches bleeding light".  I could steal that line all day long and never tire of it.

Enns was born and raised in a Mennonite community in Ontario but now makes her home with her family in British Columbia where she teaches piano.  Some of these poems broach her Mennonite past and Mennonite history and these are elegant details but not the story.  Enns is one of those poets who could and should - write about anything - and make it interesting, it is not the subject matter that makes these poems but the delicate forcefulness of Enns' voice articulating the pageant.

Church Job:  Day One

Just fifteen.
You've pulled out all the stops:
diapason, dulcet, vox,
geigen, flauto, hautboy, horn.
Fingers splay the manuals,
legs the easy octave,
couplers on.  One chord
to set the pitch, you're onto it.
Nothing missing but the signal from above.
He's up there now: a modern Moses at the pulpit,
white-haired, arms stretched high, palms out,
more divine aim than a forked willow branch
and the flock of four hundred
rising to their feet.
Momentarily the signal blurs, fogs up.
Palms out or down?
Must be out.  You let her rip.
All the rage of wood and steel in thirty-foot pipes,
a rush of air to bring down Sinai stone
and you're surging into absolute vibrato,
bells and sound of cello, trumpet, bass,
a chord to counter hell.
Then that sweep of elbow,
wrist, the final flourish
off the cuff.
Pure swell.
But no one has their hymnals out
and Moses looks down
resolute, says softly,
Let us pray.


Karen Enns has written a serious book of poems worthy of our serious consideration and attention - but the poet is quite willing to take a poke at her own solemnity.  These very human poems move the reader  with subtle shifts in tone, Enns is in full control and speaking with a very authoritative voice.

Highway Turn

The heat of the day is on you now,
a slow noon singeing in the glare, flat gold
of ragweed, thistle, wind as dry as whistling grass
and then cicadas, blasting through the orchard pears.
Everywhere the pulse of what you know
and what you don't: a rising shimmer coming off the road
as you head for the highway turn.

No rain in weeks and all you need is one voice
naming you, taking the stain on your hands,
your feet hard with dirt, one voice
turning the beat in your ears to something held
quiet, cool, offered in shade
to the wide open mouth of your heart,
and you will stay.
You will stay.


I'm very fond of this book and very fond of talking about poetry - but here is a far more recognizable voice, from the back cover of That Other Beauty:

     "Here is the strange, the other beauty, the one that makes us tremble a bit
     when we read these poems.  There is a purity in them, a rare and intimate choosing
     of images and ideas that can only be described as rightness, a delicate felicity of phrasing
     and rhythms that undoes me each time I turn to their quietness.  Karen Enns is a gift to what
     I can only call song, an offering to "the wide open mouth of the heart."
                                                                                                            - Patrick Lane

Who doesn't want to agree with Patrick Lane?  That Other Beauty was nominated for the Gerald Lampman Award for the best debut book of poems.  Ordinary Hours, a new book of poems from Karen Enns, will be published by Brick Books in 2014.

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