Register Sunday | August 18 | 2019

No False Logic in Borson's Short Journey

"Sadly, the story can never be real."

To read Roo Borson is to discover colour in black and white photographs or witness once barren landscapes flowering forth in full fecundity. The original greyness and bleakness, however, are not washed away. Borson allows hope and despair to reside side by side, -just as the living and dead intermingle, and the past and future collide with the present. Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida reveals a mysterious world that only the poet can decipher and describe.

One section of this collection is titled "Water Colour," an appropriate image for Borson's beautifully descriptive language. Her poems are landscapes painted in spectacular color: "an allegorical painting / standing in for the world," ephemeral and translucent, half-fleeting, half-captured.

I wish the first section, "Summer Grass," were longer. Despite that, it provides a beautiful beginning to a book that wonders at the existence of summer and grass, as well as all living things, no matter how anonymous or minute. Borson reminds us in this section that our experience of the world is a pantomime performed by seemingly insentient beings:

The willows are thinking again about thickness,
slowness, lizard skin on hot rock,
and day by day this imaging transforms them
into what we see: dragons in leaf, draped scales
alongside the river of harried, spring-stirred silt.
 
In Borson's world, everything lives and is capable of influencing one's perceptions. Nothing is to be taken at face value. And nothing is too lovely or perfect-to be alive is to be fallen and broken, created from what has been discarded:

The swans are reasoning beings;
the young cygnets, hatched from pins
 and old mattress stuffing, bright-eyed,
learning what has bread, and what doesn't.

In the poet's world, the origins of life are not glorious or mystical. Death is therefore accepted for what it is: when a cat dies in "Green World," the moment is just as poignant, just as painful, as the death of the speaker's mother. The prose piece "A Bit of History," the fifth section of this six-part collection, features a bridge famous for its suicides. Affixed to that bridge is a poem written by the parents of a suicide to their dead child. "Amazingly," writes Borson, "almost superstitiously, people still fall back on writing poetry when they feel they have something truly important to communicate."

Death leaves us with "that old feeling of dread over the simplest things"; in the third section, "Persimmons," this simple fruit moves Borson to despair by reminding her of her mother, who has journeyed beyond this life. "Who," Borson asks, "could remember the goodbyes in the exigencies / of the next life, or the glimmering half-life[?]" In Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida, Borson takes the time to say her goodbyes in poems that are flawless in their rhythm and their pace. Her use of sudden caesuras slices the near-silence of her words like oars cutting through tranquil waters.

Borson turns to poetry to come to terms with death, perhaps in the hope that textualizing events will somehow transform them into memorials that are forever marked and thus lend them a sense of immortality:

And what if all this land, all our life,
everything we see,
should turn into a book, a story,
and never turn back again?

Sadly, the story can never be real. "The lichen-spotted tin canteen / suspended in the river weeds like a turtle" remains, regardless of the transcending power of metaphor, a canteen. Realizing the limits of human life, Borson writes:

And when the pages,
cool and soft, intend a melody, remember
you weren't here before and you won't be again,
when you go the whole world goes with you.

Like a reader reaching a caesura, the world seems to pause deeply when someone dies, and it is the task of the poet to put the world back into motion:

Dialects of wind, water,
caesuras in the grass. Rose, meadow rue, blood-on-the-thorn
-whose tapestries delight but do not love us-
why be born?

Borson suggests that the reason for being born is, paradoxically, to be born again in order to love someone whom we've loved before, this life being "only practice / for some other life." In the section "Water Colour," which is made up of a series of Basho-inspired, haikulike stanzas, Borson writes:

A bug flies past. Flies past,
and I understand
what it is to be born.
Next life, I'll love you again-
 
In the press release for this title, Borson states that she wrote many of these poems "while walking along a stretch of the River Torrens in South Australia." For a Canadian poet vacationing in Australia, the book's logic is surprisingly Eastern, especially in its conclusions concerning the afterlife and the meaning of the here-and-now. "And what would you give us," Borson asks, "what would you give up, in the beautiful / false logic of math, or Greek?" Giving up this "false logic" allows the poet to produce poems that move the reader to confront mystery, reincarnation and a world of reassuring paradoxes.

Spring may not be as pleasant as we think, and hell not as damning as we have envisioned: "If there were a hell / it would be spring, the tortures of chrysalis." Through language that is so lush it manifests a physical existence, Borson's poems resurrect the dead landscapes and give life where seemingly there was none before. She secures the promise that everything will live again in the physical world-even poetry, even loneliness, even the dead: "Summer after summer, / the hills covered with golden straw, / the same buzz-saw came back to life." To read Borson is to realize the awe-inspiring edict that poetry is how the living communicates with the dead, and the physical world is how the dead communicates poetry to the living.