I can still draw, by Heather Spears
Reviewed by Ingrid Ruthig
With the release of her twelfth collection, I can still draw, award-winning expat poet and visual artist Heather Spears continues to render an unsettling world. Her poems exhibit qualities similar to those of her drawings (four of which adorn this book); they are at once ordinary, urgent, deliberate, yet often remain ambiguous. At their best, lines encapsulate a moment, mood, or sensibility, then proceed to reveal a deeper reality, often through a single detail that contrasts sharply with its less-defined setting.
Spears’ skill at pinning down the essence of her subjects is apparent from the first poem: “‘The vagina,’ says Jack // in his loud lecturer’s voice / this time at the restaurant, leaning back, replete, / ‘has never been properly shown / in the medical books ….’” Like the narrator (one of Jack’s “listeners”), the reader is elbowed into paying attention, to “feel this touch / silk and continuous skin to inner skin / in darkness, the closeness the firm fold / as of two hands in celebration, / or smoothed linen, or a book, its pages / closed over silence.”
From there, a gallery of disparate studies shapes this collection, beginning with: museum photos of young pre-Raphaelite suffragettes; the long-neglected Sheffield knives of a Scottish ancestor; a slow, hot border crossing at Niagara Falls; cell phone towers disguised as trees; the West Coast’s ’quake-prone landscape; and even a glimpse at allergies, in the poem “Expecting hay fever at the Scottish border” which concludes with a startling, marvelous visual:
“Yellow broom among pines, and the brain
quickens to it, anticipates — […]
Countable now, the days
of my health […]
Hardly worth a complaint
much less a poem this is not serious
or permanent or even catching
yet it’s as maddening and unreasonable
as for the blind to have sore eyes
or the deaf between whose dull appendages
the sea sings and roars across immense synaptic gulfs
and gives them no peace —
or the numbed man, rising
who goes to stand on his foot, surprised
and falls through its absence
the whole height of himself.”
Another example of spellbinding imagery can be found in the poem “Synchronized swimming”, in which the swimmer surfaces “with water dripping off the rivets of her teeth.”
Elsewhere the language’s sonic insistence draws the reader deeper. In “Ghost crabs, Kihei”, a walk on the beach leads the narrator to ponder mysterious marks in the sand: “The beach is still in shadow / but it’s changed — scratched, textured, / something frantic happened here….” The word “frantic” immediately launches the poem to a higher realm, that of the contemplation of war and its insidious roots:
“Or it’s the aftermath
of warfare — tank tracks, bomb
craters and spewed sand, Desert Storm
on a tiny scale and only just surrendered.
[…] There’d have been,
with anyone there to listen, a fierce whisper
almost sub-aural, all those armoured tips
manipulating, eyes on stalks
gunmetal backs gone haywire, mass and mess
and movement at ground level.
Whatever it was, it’s all stitched up.
The surf wipes the lower shore
and soon the towels and feet
of tourists will smooth away
whatever was done or undone,
in tunnels, in their solitary cells
the ghost crabs kneel on their many knees.”
Keen images and aural echoes blend to resonate with even greater impact. In “Spring tide, Active Pass, Quake poem 4”, lines such as “Lowest tide of the year and the pass / full of ravelled patterns […] Patches like rain squalls or the mess of false wind / under a helicopter” provide a dynamic sketch. Similarly, “On the bus through Tsawwassen” unleashes a fun rant on language’s contemporary mishandling with
“Deafness Awareness Week
Disaster Response Route
I’m getting sick of these stupid
strings of nouns
Thing, thing, thing
as if you could nail down the world
what happened to verbs?”
But the rant ventures further, to elicit what is possible:
“[…] they overwhelm us, these names
for nothing, they are weighted and thick
they clog the beautiful empty space
between the shimmering touchable world
prevent its melting and inconstancies”
The blunt and the lovely coexist, sharper for their proximity, and heightened with deft aural fine-tuning. In “Tofino”, the crisp beauty of a shore landscape, “Away off, people eaten by the light / threadlike, gaunt as Giacomettis / against the enormous horizontal […] Call the dog to me […] her reflection a grid of pixels shaking / on the light-blasted slick” counterpoints the uncomfortably intimate “Ward 5033 room 15” in which a bereft new mother “heaves to greet me — large wet / in a gown half stuck to her, the thick / of her hug, heavy with heat / and milk and leaking grief”, as well as the unexpected reality of a post-accident Christopher Reeves in “Superman”, who “wakes to yet / another muted day, / the locomotive of his death / imperceptibly / accelerates”.
Though not a ‘selected’, this is a lengthy, undivided collection that could have benefitted from some pruning. Hiccups of style, form, and placement occur. Guiding punctuation often disappears, and a nebulous form tends to be used; in combination, they sometimes hinder an immediate clear perspective. Anomalous poems also appear, veering in odd directions without bearing their weight: “The Kibbles equivalent”, “A prayer for grandmothers with swimming pools”, and “The listserve sequence”, which set aside a more poetic esthetic to chattily lambaste a do-gooder of dogs, to air suburban worries, and with an undefined mood to pick up stray threads of electronic discussions. Yet, despite these weaknesses, there is much to recommend the book, and it will reward repeat readings.
When a writer has accomplished so much, one has to wonder if any unexplored territory remains. The reader who approaches I can still draw seeking the challenging, skewed jolt of Spears’ 1958 collection Asylum Poems won’t find it. Perhaps that is as it should be. Still, this book proves that it is never too late for the eye to discover and for the pen to startle.