It can be easy (and common) for poets to equate old age with the fading of light. Darkness, in all its bleak black infinitude, gets treated as the end of something, the loss of richness or the vibrancy of life. Patrick Friesen, writing in his new collection of verse, A Dark Boat, has another take on the shadowy oblivion that creeps up on us all. Here, in this compilation of short, quiet poems, Friesen pulls off the impressive feat of lending darkness and shadow a fecund quality, comparing it to the fertility of soil, to the intrigue of an unanswered question, an unknown history.
The backdrop for A Dark Boat is Spain and Portugal and Friesen’s search for the ghost of Federico García Lorca, the acclaimed Spanish poet murdered by fascists during the Spanish Civil War. In a number of poems, Friesen coalesces his preoccupations with darkness with his preoccupations over the questions that still linger over the death and life of Lorca. A chief example of this would be the poem “Lorca” itself, where Friesen writes:
what can be done about a dream
of black veils and a crucifix
what can be done when you’ve
forgotten your mother’s prayer
only death listens to fear
only his body hangs on to him
smelling the road’s dust
hearing the rifle’s bolt
If this sounds bleak, it really isn’t. A Dark Boat looks to superimpose an uplifting quality to what we traditionally see as gloomy subject matter, and this is his greatest tribute to Lorca. In his poem “Night”, for example, Friesen mixes vibrant colour with a grim task when he writes “a shovel across his shoulder/ he walks through yellow fields/ toward the stream where/ night is buried.” In “Widow”, he laces together loss with a kind of steadfast pride: “she has loved death/ the widow at the window/ has lain with it/ you don’t know what’s behind her/ in the dark room.”
My best example of what Friesen is doing here actually comes from the title poem, the first in the book, when he writes, “you are alone/ and you mean precisely that// you make do/ with the night you have.” Here, night is not the end of something but rather the beginning; its shadows hold secrets and the darkness provides a test for your mettle, a chance to prove the strength you possess.
Perhaps the entire atmosphere of this small book could be summed up by simply the title of my single favourite poem: “the sun shines through the cracks of the shithouse door.” Yes, exactly. If that’s not a reason to read poetry, and to embrace the dark as well as the light, then I don’t know what is.