Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Sniffling in the Toronto Reference Library

Suzanne Robertson’s Paramita, Little Black has been nominated for the 2012 Toronto Book Award.

And lucky for me, because I would not have read this slim volume of verse had it not been.

Lucky for me, because it’s another reminder that poetry doesn’t have to be this far-away thing that other people — smarter people — read.

It’s clear that these poems are rooted in Toronto, in the city landscape of intersections and subways, lakeshore and trees.

Kennedy and Eglinton, Queen and Sherbourne, Bloor and Yonge (just south of the reference library, in which I sat to read this collection): some of the poems have single settings (an office, a subway car) but several are rooted at a crossroads, at moments of change.

I read the final poem in the collection first, “October”, because it is freshly October and the day was soaked in that awareness, with its late-arriving autumn sun and the rich blue sky that is apologizing in advance for the winter to come.

And perhaps because it was the first poem I read –

or because I was still in the space that exists when you are filled with uncertainty about a book you are holding, awaiting what is within –

I was caught off guard by it. Straight off, with this:

“When that scrap of velvet died in our arms it was unlike any sorrow I carried
Grief was exactly 21.2 pounds of flesh and fur.”

So there I am, suddenly sniffling and teary, unexpectedly struck by something rooted in — and between — the lines in this collection.

Across from a man slowly working through a fill-in-the-blank form in what is not his first language (given the way that his capped pen slowly, deliberately underlined each word in the instructions for each segment), with two students surrounded by books about anatomy and physiology at a table nearby, another table occupied (as if by quiet agreement) by young people wholly absorbed by their handheld devices:

there, I fell into this experience that Suzanne Robertson sketched in two big handfuls, heartfuls of words.

Overwhelmed by the grief in those lines, in memory. By the sense that such gusts of emotion cannot possibly be contained in ink. And, yet, they are.

Even the titles of some of these poems suggest “big ideas”, lofty subjects explored in the verses that my English teachers recited when I was in school (all those lines about urns and flowers were really, it turned out, about mortality):

“Fear of Death Confounds Me”;
“Turning About in the Seat of Consciousness”; and
“Sibling of the Air”.

Serious subjects, right? And the title itself, with ‘paramita’ in it, a word that I did not recognize as meaning an action that sparks a spiritual sojourn: it sounds even more serious.

And that’s true. Take this extract, from “Goodness” (another serious subject, right?):

“Because the women you love are taken
away piece by piece. And odds say

your time is coming.

And he will bring mortal
instruments. But don’t be afraid. Others
have lain down whole and risen

to tell fragments
of the same story.”

But these are the kind of verses that remind you that poetry is for everybody. That there are moments of beauty alongside the tragedies. That the mundane existence of a secretary can be poetic:

“She cranks up the stainless steel knob of the universe
And sits at her desk like Captain Kirk

Staring out the window at an enterprise of gray
Beam me up beam me up, she says to her loss

Of faith, and uses some masking tape
To hold normal together.`

Because, sure, that’s serious stuff. But we all know what it’s like, having to use masking tape to hold normal together.

And even though we never thought of it (well, I didn’t: maybe you did), we know exactly what she means when she puts the everyday sights in this city into ink.

As in “To the Point”, where sailboats are “moving like brides towards the alter of blue”, trees are “practicing Tai Chi in the wind” and geese are “walking like grandparents along the beach”.

Paramita, Little Black is a heartfelt collection: seriously good.

 

 

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