Formalism is not the ground I usually walk, so how do I explain my complete fascination with the poetry of Alexandra Oliver? These very structured poems are in disguise, it is a trick of the cleverest kind. Oliver is speaking plainly enough to us even though she has ornamented her stories within the framework of very traditional formal rhyming schemes. It is mostly invisible magic because these poems read with the casual tone of free verse. That is a huge compliment.
The Promise We Made
To The Earthquake
I'm going to turn my back on death, forsaking
fatalistic anomie. I'll forge
a human heart from rogue tectonic plates,
a way to make the flocks of birds return.
I'll wait until the church has ceased to burn,
the arms to pull away from iron gates,
rebel against geology in rage.
I swear I'll do it when my hands stop shaking.
I'm going to turn the world back by a day,
raise stone wall and conjure panes of glass
from mournful piles of sand and broken streets.
I'll tell my neighbour what he means to me,
give back his toaster, skis, and new TV.
I'll make the rude wind raise tarpaulin sheets
and let them part until the children pass
to parents resurrected from the clay.
I'm turning over fifty-two new leaves.
I'm going to speak with kindness to my wife
and tell my baser thoughts to disappear.
I will not steal my brother's medications,
fake illness at my in-laws' celebrations,
or make my office intern weep in fear.
I fell apart so I could make my life
a binding deal within a den of thieves.
I swear to you that, when the ground stops shaking,
I'll put this day behind me like a dream.
I'll step out with my ordinary hands,
clear lumber and lay bricks for twenty years,
re-irrigate the gardens with my tears,
endeavour to be one who understands
how our own better angels can redeem
a country from the hell of earth's own making.
Alexandra Oliver is seriously funny when that is what she is striving for. These poems are precisely weighted and measured but the reader never feels that as a burden. I'm pretty sure Oliver can hit any target she aims at, she is assassin clever and precise as a clock.
On Fifth Avenue
Today's there's a boy in the bookshop cafe
In frock coat and black satin vest
And a hat and a cane and a silver pince-nez
And a pocked watch tucked in his breast.
He tells me he's Russian and likes to compose
(Folk opera's big in demand),
And he somehow seems more than a loon in old clothes,
So I reach for his thin, offered hand.
I wonder what colours the life that he leads;
(How often are people unkind?
Does some other age give all that he needs?)
I follow him now, in my mind:
I picture him later, on one of the trains—
The passengers goggle with groans,
Make fingertip squiggles right next to their brains,
Nudge neighbours, take pictures with phones.
His family waits by the small garden wall
On the coldest of cold Jersey nights,
And nothing is Russian here, nothing at all,
But he is the brightest of lights.
Though not quite what Bubba describes as a mensch,
Such love is a fixed guarantee,
As they listen for scrapes of the Schweighofer's bench
And wait for the flight of the bee.
These poems are a lesson in classical poetry writ large and modern. Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway is a towering accomplishment. Oliver would describe her poems as "text-based home movies" and they are - but honed through a very particular lens, shot back onto the screen and made real through Oliver's pyrotechnical mastery of form. Oliver writes as though wit were her middle name and eloquence something she was born to.
Meeting the Tormentors
They all had names like Jennifer or Lynne
or Katherine; they all had bone-blonde hair,
that wet, flat cut with bangs. They pulled your chair
from underneath you, shoved their small fists in
your face. Too soon, you knew it would begin,
those minkish teeth like shrapnel in the air,
the Bacchic taunts, the Herculean dare,
their soccer cleats against your porcine shin,
that laugh, which sounded like a hundred birds
escaping from a gunshot through the reeds—
and now you have to face it all again:
the joyful freckled faces lost for words
in supermarkets, as those red hands squeeze
your own. It's been so long! They say. Amen.
The surprise for me is how much I thoroughly enjoyed Alexandra Oliver's Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway. This is strong, deliberate writing that pulls you into its' orbit immediately and holds the reader in its' own particular gravity, the embrace is enchanting.
Alexandra Oliver - Launch of Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, Toronto