Saturday, December 21, 2019

A Reading of Rail

Miranda Pearson
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019

A one-word book title, the word both noun and verb and rich with various meanings, essentially waves a passing language lover down. Such titling of collections of poetry is not uncommon; indeed, it has become a poetic form in itself, a shaping form perhaps already aptly named and in the midst of being explored by academics for all I know. For those deeply steeped in the reading of poetry for the joy of experiencing a universe of thought, a title like Rail surely is the dark matter, a form whose mysteries we yearn to uncover. Looking through The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms to see if the one-word book title is included (it isn’t), I encountered again these words by Mark Strand: “A poem is a place where the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable, where to imagine is to feel what it is like to be.” Rail, abounding with mystery, is this most exquisite place.

Coming to this work, my curiosity was further piqued by Miranda Pearson’s percipient review in Event magazine of my work, which identified philosophical frameworks and lineage. I too like to follow a writer’s thinking around, or try. Pearson’s work in Rail nods to and grows around the likes of ee cummings, John Bunyan, Mother Goose, William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and so on, down a wide-ranging page of Notes, the allusions and quotes elegant and integral to the poems.

A Dickinsonian dash opens Pearson's six-stanza poem “Bowl,” and the shaping of a bowl on a pottery wheel begins, and so begins a feminist contemplation of politics, work, gender, and art, its circular depth and reach rising with each line, until in the fifth stanza the essence of hope is realized:

Clay forgives
but has its own soft memory
and when you handle it, it lives.

But what does it mean to be contained?  Pearson leaves us with this:

It cannot be false.
The finished bowl a nest
for the thing with feathers.
The italicized words are by Emily Dickinson.

Not one thing feels false in Rail. The sensual texture is extraordinary throughout. In the long poem “Alaskan Cruise,” the shaping experience of place and time is considered (“The wake converged like train tracks — dazzling / as death. You’re the vanishing point”) and reshaped considerably by the workings of memory (“Never think of this place as static, / says the guide, through static“).

In “The Hunter,” a familiar sight in many a closet here turns into an arresting image: 

A row of dusty handbags looks abashed and lopsided,
as if they all had strokes.

Three poems later in “Stroke,” the speaker’s “Mum” is without speech, trying to play Scrabble and struggling with words. “Put the letters away in their soft bag” goes the final line of the last three-line stanza of this six-stanza poem, the “soft” hearkening back to the clay, the bowl, the unnamed hope.

Grounded and resonant, Rail is as political as it is personal, as old world as it is new, its subtlety enviable and stirring. In “Marine Drive” Pearson says it best: “A beautiful shape is its own consolation.”