A Newer Wilderness, by Roseanne Carrara
Reviewed by Jacob Bachinger.
If you’re like me, when flipping through the pages of a new book of poetry, you tend to let your eye scan over the lines randomly, looking for an arresting phrase or image. When flipping through Roseanne Carrara’s collection A Newer Wilderness, what you will probably find most arresting is the “Notes” section at the end of the book. Certainly these pages do give a strong indication of the poet’s work: poems with inter-textual references to Horace, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Alexander Pope, Ian MacEwen — even Ray Bradbury — as well as to painters such as Lawren S. Harris, Jean-Paul Lemieux, Frederick H. Varley, Simon Marmion, and also to Wagner’s Ring cycle and the natural history of the Starling and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.
This puts Carrara’s A Newer Wilderness in a definite class with a high standard. By invoking the likes of Dickinson and Frost et al., she accepts a self inflicted challenge. As a poet, Carrara has to be good to make those connections. And often Carrara is very good, very prepared to meet that challenge, to meet the bar she has raised for herself. Her poetry is dense and ambitious, carefully and subtly tackling big themes, yet it is nicely balanced by touches of irony and humour throughout. Her ambition announces itself right from the start, in the collection’s prologue, “To A Translator of Horace,” where Carrara writes, “Nobody escapes the sport of the old gods / or the shame of the new Christ, cold in his chiefly literal state.”
Christ’s presence in the prologue is a key. This is the first of a number of references to resurrection that recur throughout (a theme which culminates in the collection’s centre-piece long poem, “Kenotaphion,” the title meaning “empty tomb”). And while death and destruction are part of the allure of resurrection, Carrara places more emphasis on a profusion of rebirth and renewed life. From the “consistent fruiting/ and flowering of oranges and hollyhocks” in “Lullaby,” to the “Transformation” and “Renaissance” of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum in “the Course of the Renovations,” to a meditation on a bird once thought to be extinct in “the Restoration of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker”: “something once / called miraculous seems to be taking place again….”
At times, this fascination with the miraculous involves a direct confrontation with divinity, as in “The Wife of Pilate,” which Carrara prefaces with Matthew 27:19: “When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying ‘Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.’” In the poem, Carrara elaborates on that dream, dramatizing Pilate’s wife as wrestling with a chimera-like creature:
“…it was a hawk in wings
only that clambered down on top of me, a hawk
with the face of a man, the paws and tail of a lion
(or one of those cloned sheep) connecting himself to me
in a nauseous instant. And it wasn’t sex he’d come for
or anything like it, but a fight towards a death
of a sort I could barely master…”
Pilate’s wife admits, … “What I would have given
to have been a kind of Leda then, for that bird
to have flown down and made a supper of me
or come all over my leg, lifting a cold god
from my thigh…”
the ruddy afternoon, the night, one half day of nothing
I’d call paradise or even close, rolling, and pausing,
sometimes giving way for breath…”
Another violent, dramatic encounter with the miraculous is found in ‘Lazarus Speaks in Front of Lemieux’s Lazare, 1941.’ In this poem images of war and death merge with the scene of the man’s resurrection, yet this is blended with a wry humour as the reborn man confesses: “…I didn’t want them to find my coming back to life / miraculous on account of any good I had been deserving / or had done…” Ideally, Lazarus, like an art gallery tour guide, is explaining the scene that Lemieux had painted. Since this painting has likely not been committed to memory for most readers, this is an instance where the esoteric subject seems to get in the way. Luckily, Roseanne Carrara’s publisher (Insomniac Press) had the foresight to use the painting for the book’s cover.
And perhaps that’s why the “Notes” section is there: to give the reader a little more insight into what the poems are about, into what she had in mind when she wrote them. While the notes are interesting, often giving credit where credit is due (eg. the end note for the poem “Notes on Immigration” reads in part, “ The lines on the mynah are inspired by Wayne Grady’s Bringing Back the Dodo…”), there are times when the notes themselves get in the way. The note for “A Newer Wilderness (II)” explains: “The speaker responds to a book review of Dennis Lee’s UN. ‘UN: An Uncanny Unraveling,’ Karen Solie, The Globe and Mail, (Toronto), April 12, 2003.” This is precise to the point of being pedantic. And yet without giving us much information on what Solie wrote about Lee’s UN, it’s also vague to the point of being cryptic. (Maybe it’s a little more wry humour?) Another concern is Carrara’s poetic ear. She favours the long line; as a result, many of the pieces feel like prose poems. But since her phrasing can be a little flat here and there, some pieces simply feel like prose.
The poem that most characteristically displays her qualities as a poet is “Opera Week in Radio.” The note reminds us that in the autumn of 2006 CBC Radio Two carried complete coverage of the Canadian Opera Company’s staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle. The poem itself is a kind of rambling, “prosey” coverage of the coverage, offering thoughts on the performances, which climax on a Sunday afternoon: “the Sunday of the Gotterdammerung.” Carrara describes her family’s activities that day, explaining that though the opera plays, no one pays much attention. However, “At a point, the music just required a shift in attitude….” In turn, each member of the household is transformed by “a certain elegance associated with that age/ before the advent of television,” and they begin to listen to the radio more intently. Demonstrating a particular deftness in her execution, the poem — which the reader has probably just skimmed as absent-mindedly as the family has listened to the radio — takes on a renewed intensity, and the reader also experiences that shift in attitude, that certain elegance: “For a moment, we were all withheld by the transmission of Brunnhilde’s final breath; for each of us, / alone, she was alone. Though there was something in the sky, we said, that lit up with her, too, and broke in through the window blinds, and sundered what we knew.”
This sundering is at the heart of A Newer Wilderness, where portents of the miraculous are always revealing themselves, and “a newer earth” is always close at hand, albeit with a few ironic surprises. Although this is Roseanne Carrara’s first collection, she has raised the bar high.