Point No Point, by Jane Munro
Reviewed by Michael Goodfellow
Described on the back copy as a poetry of “witness,” the poems in Point No Point are not styled in the genre of Carolyn Forché’s poetry of witness, which acts as a recording of political massacres and the like, and is found in Forché’s The Angel of History and her anthology Against Forgetting: A Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. Rather, Point No Point mourns the poet’s father (her previous collection mourned her mother) through descriptions of adult and childhood memories often involving the father. Munro’s book is a mundane representation of a topic which itself marks depreciation from the usual “poetry of witness” subject. I don’t think there is anything wrong with writing poetry about one’s dead relatives, such as Fred Wah and George Elliott Clarke have done, but there seems to be feeling among some Canadian poets that their ancestors must be automatically interesting to Canadian readers. Yet whatever the inherent value of the subject Munro chose, the mundane result in Point No Point is the problem: the sometimes free verse, sometimes prose descriptions are minutely detailed but without actual clarity or emotion.
Many of the poems contain descriptions of events and places that are not presented in a coherent way and that do not contribute to the meaning of the poems they are found in. Apparent memories from the poet’s childhood for example, “She sent me for eggs / to the black house by the interurban tracks / where the mother let her children play inside, / but no sliding on the linoleum,” carry little meaning or imminence. The word choice of certain poems creates temporal confusion: a speaker is at one point a small child who uses words like “Mother” but in the same poem the speaker uses adult words like “flounced” and “convalescence.” These speakers do not relay an adequate sense of place. Places are introduced with a lack of information: “When I wanted to be alone, / I climbed the rise to the vacant lot / and sank into its high weeds.” The reader has no sense of where the vacant lot is. A description of a boat launch as seen by the poet as a young girl, “Now they’d hoisted [the boat] from the cradle / and set her at the top of the slip,” is emotionless and materially unclear. The words “Now” and “they” and “had” relate the experience indirectly. And the reader wonders why he or she is being told about the ship launch.
When the poems in Point No Point are emotional, I’m sad to say the emotion is a simple one. As in “False Lilly-of-the-Valley,” where it is simply summed in the clichéd last line: “false to no one, true to itself.” The assertion that a flower has been arrogantly named is an idea too simple to form a poem.
Some poems are enchanting, such as “Frog.” Rather than minutely detailed memories, these poems contain forceful and interesting feelings, like the “need to put my finger on / a frog hidden in my heart — / feel it, struggling, in my palm.” But “Frog” is rendered lame by clichéd lines such as “overhead / the Big Dipper slowly stirs the constellations, / keeping them from sticking.” These lines in “Frog” do not seem to have any relevance to the poem, and the Big Dipper metaphor is too obvious to be effective at conveying anything. What is probably the most powerful line in the book, “Yes, the past was good, and yes, much I’ve learned by heart proves transitory,” comes at the end of the first poem.
Munro attempts to present the relationship of situation in time (her family’s past) and situation in place (where she lives, a point that does not look like a point from one side and from which the collection takes its name). But the artifice is told rather than shown in the collection, such as in the final poem, “Moving to a Colder Climate”: “Moving to Point No Point / was coming home to / a hand-built house, / to woods redolent of childhood. / Is death / also a surveyor’s term, a point / when viewed from life, but no point, / seen from the other side?” In these poems, when they are not speaking in a telling or clichéd way as noted above, the tense and speakers and the setting are vague and confused as noted further above. Yet the most pressing matter is that the work simply does not summon the force Munro wishes.