By: Thelma Poirier
Coteau Books, April 2011, 120 pp, Paperback $16.95 CDN
Reviewed by: James Onusko
Thelma Poirier has written a number of very good poems for her latest collection, Rock Creek Blues. She has published in several Canadian magazines and poetry anthologies. The CBC has also featured many of these poems. Poirier has authored books in other genres in addition to serving as editor for a handful of books related to ranching. She is a long-time resident of Saskatchewan and her interests range from ranching to the natural environment to history. These interests are reflected prominently in the themes that emerge in Rock Creek Blues.
Poirier’s poetry resonates with me on more than one level. Having grown up on the Prairies, the imagery is evocative and her powerful use of language allowed me to re-imagine scenes that have not been conjured in a few years. For those who have not visited the American Midwest or the Canadian Prairies, Poirer’s skills will allow a journey to these diverse landscapes through her thoughtful writing. Additionally, the lifestyle of ranching and farming is never far removed from anyone growing up in the small towns, if not the farms and acreages of the prairies. The work is at times rhythmic and at others, wild and bordering on barbarism. Lessons are often learned as toddlers as small children are not and cannot be shielded from the everyday experiences of ranching and farming life that is so immediate for everyone. This is woven into many of her poems.
The collection of poetry covers a diverse range of topics and themes. Some of the most prominent and recurring are: landscape, rural lifestyles, dashed expectations, death, the celebration of life, and profound loss. The poems are grouped within five sections and while none of the sections is noticeably weak, from my reading, with wind and bone, and New Orleans, Saskatchewan, are the collection’s strongest. Poirier seems the most engaged in these two sections, the writing is clean and does not seemed forced. The natural environment, both contemporary and historical, is explored with both skill and obvious love. While the poetess does not engage in a lot of stylistic experimentation, she does employ some different techniques in the middle part of the collection with some brief stanzas that are effectively prose.
In these two portions from two poems, Poirier concerns herself with some of the themes that I have touched upon earlier in the review:
we want to take visitors to see grass
it is not grass they want to see
it is badlands
dry gulches and adobe hills
streaks of colour grey on rose
layers of concealed fossils
and on the surface
varves along an ancient shore
clumps of primrose, sage
when I lugged
the bull’s skull
seven miles up Rock Creek
it was not because
I thought the skull would speak
or even that I might listen
but because it was there
braced against the bank
shimmering beneath the water
staring at me
through a watery lens
Rock Creek Blues is not perfect. Readers who have not traveled to this geographical space in Canada, may not identify with many of the images or the lifestyle that Poirier explores nearly exclusively in this collection. Her New Orleans, Saskatchewan section is very strong, but is maddeningly short from my reading. It is the one section of the collection where she seems unfettered from place which at times dominates the poetry to an overwhelming extent. If Thelma has related work to this section, she should be rushing it into print at her earliest convenience. Finally, the voices and memories of children and childhood are absent in much of this collection. The New Orleans section includes some excellent references to childhood and youth, however, these themes are almost wholly absent from the rest of the collection.
These drawbacks are important, but in no way should they compel you to avoid reading this collection of poetry. In fact, if you are in need of an entry point into readable and interesting contemporary poetry, this collection will likely do just that for you. Certain poems are quite simply beautiful and will cause readers to pause and relate the writing to their everyday existence. The literary landscape in Canada, and in the larger world, can be only strengthened and improved by the creative efforts by writers such as Thelma Poirier.
*A copy of Rock Creek Blues was sent to me to read and review by Coteau Books. It was not purchased.