Ex-Ville. Rhona McAdam. Oolichan Books. Fernie, British Columbia. 2014.
How about this? Rhona McAdam writes with quiet distinction. What I mean is that extraordinary events full of miraculous people are not her terrain. Instead McAdam's poems trace, with elegance, the small movements and moments of our real lives in real time.
What a convoluted attempt to intone what McAdam handles with ease - the straight forward goods.
We court it with deep breaths:
quietly at first, so it will not hear us
But then as we circle the darkness
where it may be hiding, we begin to forget
and from far down in our throats, songs escape
through creaking doors, our guttural
wood-cutting songs, our sea-lion songs,
our songs of the heron, night-fishing
interrupted, whose singing can wake the dead.
We cannot hear the sound of those songs.
They stop us remembering
how we called up sleep, we once-young, once-dreamers.
We are too tired to remember how to sleep,
how to find our way in
to what takes us safely to morning.
When morning comes we are still in the forest
with burning eyes, looking for shadows
to step into, a mossy bank where we can set down
our mind full of burdens and be still,
take a long silent breath
the length of a moon's arc, and be still.
Today's book of poetry has been here before. Back in March of 2015 we looked at McAdam's Cartography (Oolichan Books, 2006). You can see that here:
Not much has changed. Today's book of poetry is still enamored by McAdam's gentle certainty. And then again in the eight years between Cartography and Ex-Ville we bet that a lot has changed for McAdam. She has seen more of the world, and it has seen her, the poems in Ex-Ville come from a voice of experience.
McAdam sees the frayed edges of the world, it's in these narratives, in her voice - but she remains an optimist, you can hear that too.
Today's book of poetry feels at home in McAdam world.
What is this but a race
against comfort. The question
is not when to sleep
but how small
can you become, just where
is your soft forgiving self, and can it
accommodate an armrest, the ridge
of a windowsill, another armrest.
Will your knees endure, your neck?
The viewing screens
stay blank, their content too long
ago contested. The audio is mute.
Entertainment is officially
dead on this bus.
The air twists with illicit smoke
and the driver's heavy reprimand
fills a silence lanced
with the tinning beat
of inadequate headphones.
Full moon watches
over my shoulder. Big headphones guy
pulls his hoodie over baseball cap;
drug dealer's got a big gold ring
on every finger, one eye open, one
closed hand on his suitcase.
Junkie girl stays locked
in the washroom for another hour.
Young runaway wraps himself
in a sleeping bag and bangs
the seat rest when he turns. Old guy
snores and stinks in the seat ahead of me.
Through this choppy night
every town that wakes us
has a Walmart, Tim Hortons,
a Shell and McDonalds
guarding its flank, heralded
by a shock of streetlights.
At every stop the driver bangs
the microphone to life.
He's a long way from home,
his accent undefiled.
At every stop the girl with AIDS
shuffles from the back and down the steps
for a smoke, hoarding its crushed remains.
At every stop the young men
follow her, shivering in their caps
and gleaming sneakers, they all blow smoke
at the oblong windows of every station,
watching the driver's weary loadings
When we make the last stop
before dawn, everyone descends
then boards again, rustling sandwiches,
cracking cokes and iced tea. Drug dealer
hauls his case back on board,
knocks back burger after burger,
his iPhone finally mute. The runaway
peels back the plastic from his breakfast,
a pale cross-section of bleached bread,
pink strata of luncheon meat.
Mountains loom, showing their
snowing teeth as light cracks the summits.
We follow its spill down the hill into morning,
all the night road's bleary citizens
gathered in this battered ship.
Today's book of poetry has been on that bus, more than once.
Whether it is on a bus, in a tired airport or a European city we've longed to see Rhona McAdam makes us feel a little less like a stranger in a strange land.
This morning's reading was interrupted by the sounds of construction next door. The guy on the gas-powered radial stone saw had it timed perfectly. Whenever one of us started to read a poem he'd whip into a stone cutting frenzy with his diamond tipped monster. Of course it was all coincidence, he couldn't see into our offices and from an earlier conversation I'm pretty sure he's a poetry fan.
Once we got over the noise outside Ex-Ville gave us a damned good morning read.
The soldier joins our flight in Dallas:
twitchy, red-eyed, pungent,
his stories sandstorms
of words accelerating
during take-off, then levelling
to a steady hum of detail,
two days and sixteen drinks
out of the desert.
Six years in to a four year tour of active duty.
Seen it all at 24. Infinite the things he'll do
in two years' time when he's pretty sure
they can't call him back again... but rules
change, he knows, in times of war.
He's done with Bosnia, Afghanistan.
Passed over for promotion every time.
Peacekeeping now, a guard at Abu Ghraib. Their hands
are tied; they can't do a thing. Prisoners
spitting in his face. Do we know how hot
the desert gets? 140 in summer, no lie.
He used to love the beach, now he craves rain,
snow, silence. Or not silence, but the sounds
of Bellingham, the streets he grew up on,
homeless with his mother from the age of two.
The army seemed like heaven the way they explained it.
A free education. Maybe med school. Now he'd like
to go back to that recruiting office.
Take his gun apart, and clean it, piece by piece.
Eye to eye with the recruiter. Do we want to read
his novel? He wrote it nights, on guard at Abu Gharib.
Maybe he'll be a writer after this. He has a girl
back home; she's always asking him
for money. Maybe this time he'll end it. Not yet
but in two weeks, before he gets back on that plane.
The flight attendant slips him
another drink in spite of his uniform.
Because of it. He drains it
for the guys he left behind.
A drink for each of them
while he's out. He promised.
One more down. 133 to go.
We think Rhona McAdam must be one hell of a listener. Ears wide open. The more we read of Rhona McAdam's fine poetry the more we like it. There's a fierce clarity to her compassion and we always have room for that.
ABOUT THE AUTHORRhona McAdam was born in Duncan—a great-granddaughter of the town's namesake—and grew up on Vancouver Island. She lives in Victoria, BC. She has post-graduate degrees in communications planning, adult education and library and information science, and has worked in Canada, England and throughout Europe. Her poetry has been published in Canada, the US, Ireland and England and has been praised for her unique and engaging voice, her clarity, and her ability to balance the ethereal with the real. She has a gift for creating vivid landscapes, both actual and emotional.
Video: Times Colonist
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