Register Sunday | December 17 | 2017

Two Poets Discuss Melissa Bull's Rue and Talya Rubin's Leaving the Island


Laura Ritland: Melissa Bull’s Rue (Anvil Press) and Talya Rubin’s Leaving the Island (Véhicule) are fantastic debuts. [Editor’s note: Melissa Bull is Maisonneuve’s Writing from Quebec editor.] While distinct in their own rights as first collections, they are twinned in their concerns with childhood, adolescence and the exploration of self across geography and time. Travel is central to both books. While Rue’s primary residence is Montreal, it spirits us off to North Carolina, Bogotá and Russia. Leaving the Island, meanwhile, divides its focus among four islands—Montreal, Australia, Santorini and Saint Kilda in the Outer Hebrides.

Both books have something different to say about the transformational power of journeys. Rubin’s collection tells a story about “leaving the island”—whether it’s the ancient community of Saint Kilda or 1990s Montreal—and arriving at the final realization that “when you accept all you have, you will realize who you are”(“Return”). Bull questions the very ability of journeys to lead us to new discoveries. Even in Nevsky Prospekt, Russia, we find the same old McDonald’s and Coca-Cola signs, “rusty urine-stinking water in a fuchsia showerstall”(“Nevsky Prospekt”). Style separates them as well: Rubin employs form and metre (the pantoum in “Voyage to Australia, 1852,”iambic-anapestic rhythms in “Leaving the Island”); Bull’s poems are entirely free verse, using talky, colloquial rhythms. 

Ruth Daniell: You’re right to pinpoint how both collections are preoccupied with transformations of the self, especially in relation to time and place. Although I wonder about your assessment that they both have something fascinating to say about these transformations. My experience with Rue is that Bull’s speaker is more determined to describe those transformations than to say anything thing about them. I was, however, very moved by Bull’s free verse, colloquial form, and stunned by many of the images she zooms in on. In “The Stare,”I loved the moment when the speaker says, “At night I vacuum straight lines along the turquoise carpet. So the house won’t look lived in”—at once resisting and succumbing to the comfort and loneliness of domesticity, which is what the poems, at their best, do very well in this collection. I saw that precision in many of the poems. They demonstrate, they describe, the ridiculousness of being at home anywhere—in any place or in a body, in a self—and how it is impossible: “My legs cross … bending my body into an embarrassment of figure-eights”(“Callow and Rue”). 

But the poems also seem to suggest how it might be possible to be at home somewhere or with someone. In “Neva,”for example, which describes a boat ride through a canal: “A spray of white fireworks erupts from the embankment. I laugh, giddy from the extravagance of such staged beauty. We glide under a footbridge. I reach to slide my hand along a steel beam at its convex.”Many of the later poems resonated with similar tenderness—I think of “The Lark,”“Draft,”“The Heart of an Ox”and “Now.”In these and other poems later in the collection, Bull interweaves a narrative about the speaker and her beloved and the grief over her father’s illness. These final poems were among the strongest for me because there was something coalescing—the way the narratives started to parallel and dovetail and interact in different ways. I craved a bit more of that narrative from the collection as a whole. That said, I’m not sure if Bull is interested in saying one thing in particular about the transformations going on in the speaker. She seems more interested in evoking an atmosphere, or a state of being, as in the chant-like rhythms of “1:00 - 2:00pm Décarie and Paré”: “I’m so grateful to have a writing job I am so grateful to have a study full of Ikea furniture I am so grateful to have won a 40″ TV I’m grateful for this Target outfit.”Bull achieves a clear, intense mood through precise details and confessional glimpses. 

LR: Right—exactly! Bull’s poems are dedicated to the experience—to nailing down detail after detail with ecstatic energy, often in the forms of listed images, anaphora and prose rhythms. To use a common writing workshop cliché, her work shows but hardly ever tells. It does what the best poetry does—makes us feel and understand before we know and name. Take this evocative image from “Edisto”: “Moon dandles a gelatinous turtle egg.”Juxtaposed with “my mother’s bunioned footprints sidle turtlefin sandtracks,”the effect is perfectly hair-raising. Talk about uncanny parental relationships. 

But yes, after what point does Bull’s focus on description become, well, description? I sometimes wondered if her dedication to the local, the immediate and the personal risked becoming esoteric or quotidian, an assemblage of images without enough directions for me to build them into full pictures. Take an example like “Arc.”The poem describes winter light in an apartment: “Plastic strips sluice up and down December beams / string against the white apartment.”The patterns of repetition in this poem are hypnotic sonically but I wondered what implication I was getting. Could Bull have pushed us further there, as she did so skillfully in “Edisto”? Perhaps it isn’t even narrative that I craved, but more electricity between the images. Something to show me why all these parts were placed in this circuit. But then, I like puzzles. I’m one of those odious people who do cryptic crosswords.

This itch for meaning, I will say, is similar to the itch I had with some of Rubin’s more confessional poems in the “Montreal”section of Leaving the Island. Poems like “Grey Gardens,”“The Good Years”and “The Rapture of 1989”evoke the sense of being a teenager in 1980s Montreal and those descriptions are incredibly heart-wrenching. But sometimes I wondered, why here? Why now? What’s the bigger picture? This leads me to ask: is it enough for a poem to describe the details of a personal life? When does it move the reader and when doesn’t it? 

RD: Now that’s a question, isn’t it—when does a poem move the reader? The Montreal poems are more confessional and I enjoyed that about them. Part of this is because I felt much more located in these poems, grounded by the hubris of adolescence, the honest selfishness of “I”—that feeling that you must be at the centre of the universe because you are the centre of it. And having such certainty of place and time and importance crystallized early in the Montreal poems made it all the more impactful when that certainty was disturbed, as by the dead rat in “The Good Years,”and perhaps most effectively for me in the final poem from that section, “This is Home,”which describes a misplaced puffin who is rescued and transported to St. John’s: “It was a success story / by all human standards. / We returned you home. / You’re home, right?”I was very moved by that questioning, that uncomfortable epiphany that home must be, in part, intention. I was moved because I felt as though I understood where or whom that questioning was coming from. I don’t know that understanding is always necessary to empathy, but empathy is probably necessary to feeling moved. You can be moved very much by a stranger’s laugh or a stranger’s cry without knowing the context for their grief or joy. However, there is something satisfying and human about wondering about the context, in telling stories to make sense of things, of other people and of ourselves. Like your crossword puzzles, storytelling is a way of filling in what you don’t know. I think that’s what I wanted more of in Rue’s earlier poems, and why I liked the final poems more; I don’t need to have things explained to me—I love mystery!—but getting even little glimpses into the reasons behind the laughing and the crying does allow me to connect in ways that viewing the images alone cannot. In any case, because I felt like I understood who Rubin’s speaker was in the Montreal poems, I found it much easier to travel with her—the backtracking and forward-going, amendments and revisions that bring us to the Santorini poems, which friction against the opening Saint Kilda poems in fascinating ways.

The Santorini section is written in prose poems and features the same speaker as the Australia and Montreal poems—that is, a voice meditating on how being in a new place can make it easier to examine the self. I thought these poems had more of an interest in telling as well as showing. Do you think it’s fair to say that in Rue, Bull is working hard to illustrate the puzzles of the self, but Rubin is showing a process for attempting to solve it? I think by not trying to solve the puzzle, Bull actually is saying something about it—that is it not something we can solve. And Rubin does work towards saying it is not something we can solve, but that we should still try.

LR: Oh yes, I absolutely agree with you about the way Bull and Rubin’s approaches to the puzzles of the self differ. Whereas Bull’s work is invested in the exhilarating now—involving us in the thrill and disaster of those intense, immediate moments—Rubin’s collection is a little more consciously strategic in its comparison of discrete geographies, travellers and their histories. I think Rubin’s aim is to question, in a more self-reflexive way, the categories we use to understand loneliness, the home and the self. This doesn’t mean Rubin arrives at solid ground. Indeed, this collection is profound for the way it admits the continual perplexity in knowing the self. To quote the speaker observing a snails’ shells in “Snail’s Pace”: “[e]ach marking contains a question and answer within its own unsolvable mystery.”

 Interestingly, I think that Rubin’s specificity—at least in the prose poems of Santorini section—might actually be understood as a move toward generality and universalism. In this section, Rubin’s aim isn’t to evoke modern-day Santorini in details—as Bull does so vividly in Rue with her use of place-names, local dialect, tastes and scents—rather, Rubin draws upon dreamlike, archetypal images. The mysterious guide who takes the speaker to a cave with “three doors”in “Cavehouse,”for example: he stands in as the classic guide to the protagonist’s journey and the cave affords a traditional site for introspection and wonder. Still, the detail in these parts were specific enough—I love the attention given to the Greek islanders’mourning traditions in “Offerings”—such that I didn’t feel the speaker was trying to universalize Santorini as just any island. Rather, her poetry performed that telescoping magic of finding the big and universal within the small and particular. Did you find the balance just as striking or successful in the Saint Kilda poems? 

RD: The universal within the particular—yes, I think Rubin is moving towards that even in the Saint Kilda poems, although in the Saint Kilda poems there is less of a centralized speaker and more of an omniscient voice that’s looking over the island and reminding the reader that each of us is “[a] hero of sorts, for surviving at all”(“Mischevious Rock”). There is an instinct towards archetype, the journey, the quest—and it’s mirrored in poems about the last Kildareans and also the other creatures, the sheep and the birds, including the last great auk—and yes, I do find it striking. It becomes even more striking when brought into conversation with the contemporary speaker of the later poems, who embarks on this quest, too, but is—as you say—self-reflexive about it. Although Rubin does not arrive at solid ground, the poems enact that hero’s journey. What made the archetypal movements successful for me—you’re right to pinpoint a move towards even more universalism in the Santorini poems—were the moments where she focuses on and magnifies specific details, like in “Cavehouse”when that mysterious guide makes the speaker tea and “the tea was magenta, an impossible colour. It tasted like a memory I could not place.”The line is at once concrete but dreamlike and impossible, and it seems a broader comment on living—that understanding who you are is an impossible task but a real and urgent one.

Bull may not comment in such plain terms, but her centralized speaker does effectively enact that urgency. There is less strategic organization, less conscious quest storytelling in Rue. Instead, there’s a real authentic drive to collect descriptions like scattered puzzle pieces. Bull uses the elasticity of poetry and stretches it to accommodate the details of a particular life, while Rubin focuses less on finding and collecting details than on assembling what she has into a (incomplete) puzzle. Both Rue and Leaving the Island are engrossing books, playing with memory and time and place. Although they head at similar questions in vastly different ways, it’s interesting to look at them side-by-side and notice that part of what makes their voices so compelling is their doubt and sincerity. None of the speakers can agree that what they are trying to achieve is possible, but that does not mean that it isn’t worthwhile. Or necessary. 

Laura Ritland’s poems have appeared in The Maynard, Contemporary Verse 2, The Malahat Review and Maisonneuve. She is the recipient of the 2014 Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for Poetry and is a recent graduate of the masters in creative writing program at the University of Toronto. 

Ruth Daniell is a writer, originally from Prince George, BC, who currently lives in Vancouver. She is the 2014 winner of the Young Buck Poetry Prize with Contemporary Verse 2, and her poems have also appeared in Room, The Maynard, Qwerty, Grain, and Arc. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and teaches at the Bolton Academy of Spoken Arts.