Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review: Dancing, with Mirrors, by George Amabile

The true poet knows how long it can take for the heart to distill what the eye sees. In the case of George Amabile, this process can (and often does) take decades. The connection between the eye and the heart – that is, the acute visualization of experience and the subsequent emotional rendering of it into poetry – is the hallmark of George Amabile’s work, a talent clearly and most affectingly on display in his new collection of poems, Dancing, with Mirrors.

I suppose I should disclose here that I knew George a bit during my time in Winnipeg. He and I bent our elbows together on more than one occasion and we had many wonderful chats about the writing life. I also attended the launch of his previous book Tasting the Dark (New and Selected Poems) when it was released back in 2001. That collection had and continues to have a big effect on me: I often pull it down from the shelf and spot-read my favourite pieces from it. So it was immensely pleasurable to see that Dancing, with Mirrors not only extends the explorations of George Amabile’s earlier poems but actually contains echoes of them within it.

The new collection is comprised of 11 cantos, each examining some deeply personal and richly felt aspect of the author’s life. He tackles both the big moments – finding love with a younger woman, having a child late in life – as well as the seemingly more mundane events, like travelling abroad or dealing with another frigid Prairie winter. Yet nothing is mundane in a George Amabile poem. Through a traditionalist’s reliance on the power of description and metaphor, he is able to infuse an entire heart’s worth of insight into the objects and relationships he sees around him. Many lines achieve their ends through the most astounding brevity (a night sky described thusly: “the moon a pearl among diamonds/ the empty sleeves/ of the sea”; or his child Evan in bed: “no blanket, his legs tucked/ under his chest, shadow bars/ like prison stripes across/ his back …”) while others build up over several stanzas to a breathtaking crescendo. What’s more, many of these poems overlap and call back to earlier Amabile pieces in ways that both haunt and elucidate.

The most harrowing example of this happens in the canto called “What We Take with Us, Going Away.” The poem’s narrator, on vacation in Italy, goes out to a cafĂ© following a tiff with his partner. Upon coming home, his car slams into a motorcyclist who has veered into his lane. The description of the impact is ghastly enough: “[H]is heavy, T-shirted shoulders/ rise and there’s a/ sickening thud/ when his head hammers the roof, just above/ the suddenly spiderwebbed windshield …” But then the poem goes to whole other unsettling level when it conjures up, in post-traumatic fashion, George’s earlier poem “Accidental Death,” about the death of his younger brother when they were children out riding their bikes:

I heard the rattle of a dump truck, a screech
of brakes, then the gunshot
of a burst tire. Over my shoulder,
a splitsecond glimpse of handlebars
raking the air at a sick angle,
milky smoke and a black
smear on the highway. I was in the air
when his body slammed on the grass
shoulder, rolled up in a heap.
I landed running, tearing
his name loose
from my throat.

This version of the poem is slightly different than the one that appears in Tasting the Dark (which in turn is slightly different than the version in George’s 1972 collection Blood Ties, where “Accidental Death” originally appeared); but it’s that variation, that kaleidoscopic view on a singular event through the prism of poetry, that makes the flashback – and thus the traffic accident in Italy – so disturbing and fresh.

This kind of “intertextuality” happens again, this time in the title canto of the new collection. “Dancing, with Mirrors” is of course a variant on “Dancing in the Mirror,” a poem that appears in both Tasting the Dark and in the 1995 collection Rumours of Paradise/Rumours of War. Here I felt less open to George’s textual mischief, but only because I love “Dancing in the Mirror” so damn much. Indeed, it took achieving my thirties (and a few blown relationships along the way) before I could grasp the full impact of lines like “Of course, the telephone/ helps, but those few you could say/ anything to, those you have known/ for years keep slipping away/ into marriages, or solitudes of their own” or what the “bell-buoy heart’s red wash” means. In the new version, the poem switches from second person to third and takes on a mesmerizing mixture of dream-like effervescence and coy specificity:

she begins to trust
her ears; the ticking
snow, far-off, echo-y
tires on wet streets, the sadness
of time. And there’s no one to kiss
her to sleep again, so she hugs
her pillow hard to the hollow
undertow that aches and leaves
her weak, knees
to her chin, her eyes
pinched against the spurs
of light that have already started
to flare in around her
Japanese window shade.

It’s the eye’s job to see and the heart’s eye to know, and this is the wisdom that George Amabile has been blessed with. Dancing, with Mirrors, through the courage of its metaphors and the trust it places in distilled experience, is a book willing to share its quiet wisdom with us. The message could be quaint in lesser hands but here it is siren call to how life itself might be lived: “Love is a mirror/ in which we learn to dance.” So too, might it be said, about the poetry itself.

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