Sunday, November 17, 2013

Previously Feared Darkness - Robert Priest

Today's book of poetry:  Previously Feared Darkness.  Robert Priest.  ECW Press.  Misfit.  Toronto, Ontario.  2013.


Einstein and Heidelberg both said
"There's no simultaneity
over vast distances"
at exactly the same time


Robert Priest, as the name implies, is one of the High Priests of Canadian Letters.  He has been everywhere and done everything.  Previously Feared Darkness is his sixteenth book and should anchor his reputation as a poet who can do anything he chooses and make it work.  (This is a poetry blog - but Priest is equally well known for his musical career and numerous CDs)

I met Robert Priest in the late 70's when I was a student at Trent University.  Robert had been brought into our class by an enthusiastic professor.  Mr. Priest made quite an impression both as a poet and a presence.  Now, almost forty years later here is Priests' latest offering, Previously Feared Darkness.  It is as fresh as new snow.

When reading Priests' book I made my usual notes, jotting down page numbers of poems I thought needed sharing.  If you follow this blog at all you will have noticed I usually pick three strong poems by any given author.  As I read and reread this book I hacked out an essential, you must read these poems list, I had to give up when I had eleven poems from the first part of the book.

One Day I Predict

One day I predict
We'll be amazed
At our strength
We will look at one another
Astonished and say
We didn't think we could do this

One day the path will be so clear
We will all say:  it's obvious
And we will hardly believe
We couldn't see the way before

One day I predict
We'll have this great true story to tell
A kind of anti-Iliad
For the coming age
Involving  all of us
Who think we are not warriors
And all of us who fear
We are not brave


Priest is an optimist of the highest order and of cheery heart.  But that doesn't mean he doesn't have his finger on the pulse of contemporary thought.  I love these poems.

The following two poems are homages to two of our cornerstone Canadian poets, Milton Acorn and Leonard Cohen:

Acorn's Oak

There should be some kind of oak
And great oak boughs above
The place where Acorn broke the law
When he shouted I shout love
In Allan Gardens week after week
Where Acorn spoke
There should be some kind of oak

There by the bust of Robbie Burns
Where Acorn roared
Through streams of reeking cigar smoke
That tree should be deep-rooted, firm
Enough to hold this place of poetry
And mark the time and the law he broke
By speaking in a public park
To all the crowds of Sunday folk
Who came to Allan Gardens
Week after week
To hear him speak

There should be some kind of oak
And great oak boughs above
The place where Acorn disobeyed
When he shouted I shout love


The Leonard Koans

Let us compare dictionaries
What happens when

An infinitely moving melody
Meets an utterly implacable voice?

There is a melody
With no notes at all

It is so we may travel with her
That we are blind

We are all connected by
One blue butterfly

You may even take away
What is there for good

If you take away
A poet's money —

Go buy rivers
Buy yard goods

In my secret life
I shout his praises, I sing his songs

I bellow them
If there's a way to say goodbye don't

When a Leonard Cohen song ends
It is not over


This is high praise from the High Priest to a couple of our deities, one living and one waiting for us in eternity.

Book of Jobs

Once God was talking to Satan and He commented how pleased
He was now that people were finally good.  Now that they finally
truly loved Him.  But Satan said, "They love you because you have
given them abundant lives and much freedom.  It's not yourself
they love you for."  In this way God was tricked into testing people.
To settle the issue with Satan he destroyed all unions everywhere.
Even without their unions most people clearly still loved God.  But
Satan was unconvinced.  So God took away safety regulations and
then he took away health care and many of them were burned
or had their hands crushed but still the great masses of people
continued loving God.  Satan was not persuaded.  "They still have
jobs.  They still have purpose.  That is what they love," he asserted.
Ten million jobs disappeared with a wave of God's hand but Satan
just sneered.  So God took away their social assistance and then
their employment insurance.  When love of God remained high it
was clear that Satan was beginning to waver.  But God went even
further to make his point.  He took away their homes.  He took
away their rights.  He even took away their family bonds so that
they fell to fighting among each other.  "Do you see how human
love for God is undiminished?" he gloated.  "Look!" he roared.
He began to kill their children.  They were crushed by cars.
They were blown up by roadside bombs.  They fell into fratricidal
wars and a great hunger fell over all the earth.  But even more
frequently the people fell to their knees and prayed.  Even more
loudly they yelled their devotions.


Previously Feared Darkness is sometimes startling in its' simplicity.  Robert Priest shows once again how much of a political junky, social activist, jester, he really is.  Some of the poems in this collection coddle, some soothe and some are a slap in the face followed by a wink.  Excellent.

Priest should be a household name, Previously Feared Darkness can only bring more readers to one of our best read poets.

This book makes me remember the feeling I had when I first tackled Irving Layton and tried hammering through his books.  Dense, humourous , knowing, pleading, consoling and entirely invigorating poems of the first class.

Interview with Robert Priest

Excerpts from Previously Feared Darkness by Robert Priest
 © 2013 by ECW Press. Used with permission from the publisher.

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