The Tongues of Earth - New and Selected Poems. Mark Abley. Coteau Books. Regina, Saskatchewan. 2015.
We here at Today's book of poetry were tickled to read Mark Abley's The Tongues of Earth. Many of these poems are newly trimmed and polished, others are simply new. Abley has a very consistent tone and voice but multiple personalities, luckily for us readers - they are all razor sharp.
The Almost Island
and rising as the planet's crust
buckles and two continents shuffle closer,
inching up like a secret Ararat from
a ridge on the ocean's turbulent floor
through miles of lightening water, each crag
within view of the surface explored by dolphins
and sharks, reconnoitered by petrels:
immune to the force of rain and fog:
all prepared for some radiant Thursday morning
when the sea recedes with grudging compliance
from a peak that has become dry land.
Not yet, not for us, though gossip tells
how the wide-eyed crew of a Japanese trawler
rescued a woman from Buenos Aires
who had walked off a yacht after midnight:
imagine her shock as she found herself, not
in the airless depths but chest-high in chilly water,
balancing on a hidden summit. "Am I dead
already?" she asked the black waves; and as if
in response, a long-submerged craving for life
poured over her like a passion for mangoes --
their texture, their flavour, their unpredictable
What I like about Mark Abley's very clever The Tongues of Earth is that each poem is its own brave new world. One minute you are in Amsterdam and you have those Dutch issues, the next you are in Labrador with that anciently dead body -- but in truth the reader is always on firm footing because Abley makes it so. These poems each seem to come equipped with their own Rosetta Stone, you don't realize you are reading the code.
I am making these poems sound more complicated than Mark Abley has made them. Abley has honed and crafted these gems just south of any formalism, they are taut as a drum, and they roll.
These poems are build on very solid foundations.
When my mother dies, the eyes of a shepherd
born in the Crimean War will die again.
No-one's left who remembers his clannish ways,
his moorland dogcalls, his turns of phrase:
nothing of him roams a working mind
except those blue, unclouded eyes she met
as she tottered along a puddle-specked lane
toward a market in the primrose season.
His names will linger, cut on a stone
up the slope from where I set fresh marigolds
on grandparents I never knew. Nearby
a baker was tidying his wife and parents,
dead within a year while the foe spoke Spanish
in the South Atlantic. "Like Job of old
in the Bible," he told me, wiping his brow,
"the slate was swept clean, you might say."
Mark Abley is a chameleon and The Tongues of Earth a cornucopia of human adventure, love, loss and hope. Abley is able to conjure as many faithful persona's as he needs. They people these poems with intelligent wit.
Abley has a sharp and sensitive bullshit barometer, he is all over any nonsense, recognizes and refutes at full-steam. These beautifully articulate poems carry Abley's occasional disdain with such high standards you almost never see the gentleman's punch coming for you.
"We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo
that night of May 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
- Gen. Curtis LeMay
Sixty years later, when the rain has dwindled
and darkness has pacified the baritone crows,
a Tokyo sky mutates into trembling
scrolls and screens, a calligraphy of fire,
the planet Saturn, snails, a weeping willow,
childish faces with eyes that linger an extra
second, two heads of cats, a geodesic dome
inside a heart that morphs into a galaxy
as the watching girls in flip-flops and kimonos
and a few of their t-shirted boyfriends ooh and aah.
the crackle of a dozen explosions peeling
clouds above the harbour into blood orange juice;
I nibble an octopus roll and sip Pocari Sweat,
wisps of purple smoke playing hide-and-seek among
the towers as I brush against a man in the crowd,
his wiry, salt-coloured hair at my shoulder;
How, I want to ask, did you manage to live
when the sky delivered fire that broke your city,
frying infants on their mothers' backs,
boiling children alive in the canals, killing
a hundred thousand people in a night...but I don't
speak his tongue; and the old man is beaming.
These poems leave me a little punch-drunk. There are many, many poems in Mark Abley's The Tongues of Earth that are simply startlingly good.
Abley's voice resonates with the trusted wisdom of someone you would want at your campfire. His poems sound/feel like stories that we need to pass along.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Abley is a Canadian poet, journalist, editor and non-fiction writer. He has published three previous books of poetry, two children's books and several works of non-fiction. He has won Canada's National Newspaper Award for critical writing and received a Guggenheim Fellowship for research into language change.
Born in Warwickshire, England, he moved to Canada as a small boy, won a Rhodes Scholarship from the University of Saskatchewan and has been a contributing editor of both Maclean's and Saturday Night magazines, and a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. For sixteen years he worked as a feature writer and book-review editor at the Montreal Gazette. He lives in Montreal.
"The poems of Mark Abley are as durable as stone and as delicate as first light; it is as if they have belonged to us forever."
- Joe Fiorito, author of The Closer We Are to Dying
"As Abley laments the overlooked, endangered and the extinct, he sings of what endures, in music that pleasure(s)...like a lover: each time we lose a language the ghosts who made use of it cast a new bell. That ringing is this urgent, beautiful book."
- Julie Bruck, author of Monkey Ranch
Irving Layton Centenary
video: Endre FarkasMark Abley paying homage to the Canadian poet Irving Layton (1912-2006) upon his Centenary.
Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher. They are shown here for publicity and review purposes. For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.