Reviewed by Tony Tremblay
The Riverbed Dry. Merganser Press, 2010
“Book reviewing can be a somewhat bleak trade,” said George Steiner in his November 1997 London Observer review of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. “The infrequent bonus is the arrival, almost unheralded, of a masterly work. Then, the reviewer’s sole and privileged function is to say as loudly as he is able ‘Read this’ and ‘read it again.’”
Steiner’s words echo my own feelings about New Brunswick poet Gerry McAlister’s new collection of poems, even if the dangers of setting up a review in this way, and to that standard, are considerable. Giving me additional pause is the fact that I have not read McAlister’s two previous collections, and, when opening this one, was at first skeptical of its economies of language, structure, and design. At sixty-one pages it is slight, and few of its poems exceed half a page, some appearing at first glance to be epigrammatic. But what I soon learned upon reading was that the brevity of expression belies concision. Yes, not a word is wasted in sixty-one pages, but each poem is refined rather than compressed, as if the raw materials of its first emotions were smelted then sealed in language that expands rather than contracts thought. These are the poems, then, of a careful craftsman, one whose cuts are true to the sixty-fourth of an inch, whose shop is uncluttered, and whose precision abjures trifle and indulgence. These are also the poems of crossing over, of transitioning to a life of less rabble and harried concern. They are, in effect, the poems of a new beginning.
They address a condition for which we all strive, yet arrive at unprepared: What does one do at 55 or 60 when the immediacies of trading labour for cash cease? What then, when the “greedy rush” is over and each of us must face “the flat and empty days” (“You and I” 54)? McAlister asks that question in “Home,” the seminal poem in the collection: “I awoke / with wonder / at 55 / living but / barely alive / wondering . . . how it had come to this / world of boundless / present without / plot or plan” (50). The whole of the collection ruminates on an answer.
“[Y]ou hurry towards the fleeing figure bathed in light,” he begins, “until you do and then it too moves on” (11), the ready answers that hail the senses mere tricks of space and light. More difficult for McAlister is the surrender of the senses to a greater ecology that requires a literal demotion of the self. In “Beech” he approaches this understanding: “Like a giant sea sponge / caught on a rising wave . . . / the beech heaves and sways / in the high May wind; exultantly / it seems to sing / I too within my given destiny / am free” (13). And so the world becomes more crowded when subjectivity ceases to be the self’s only touchstone.
In many of the poems that follow is a weariness of spirit, a weariness that comes with learning to accept one’s place on the periphery – or, as McAlister describes it, “you awake one day / to find yourself at one and the same time / tangential, removed from the fray” (“Hold the Line” 25). And though the turn to that new order is morally incontrovertible, the “giving up” to get there is not easy, for “buried loves and lives / [are] left far behind” (“Half-Door” 39). If McAlister’s tones are elegiac it is because of a fundamental loneliness in the turn from self-interest, worry, and the fellowship of urgent, messy concern. Many of his poems summon courage so he may “hold the line / for the final stage” (25) as he reaches “for a fresh way of seeing” (“Oak Leaf” 41). Others invoke the “[s]weet saving wind” (“Spring Song” 36), the “dream of leaves” (“Seasons” 34), or “the spirit of the rose’s giving” (“Rose” 44) to “slake his soul” (36).
So, what, finally, does the speaker, we presume the poet, learn in these deeply personal poems that enables him to “die fulfilled” – or, as he puts it, to “die full emptied” (“Fulfilled” 40)? To “Home” again for direction:
Like an old boat
I need, I think, to careen
to be caulked somewhere
sunny where shingle and sand meet
in a seamless weave,
somewhere where there’s nothing left to be done
but contemplate the undoable and the undone. (50)
To find one’s place in the universe is to find its essential cadence, to embrace the winter, and to live in consort with the elemental, with “earth shakers” of sea and wind that “turn more to less / turn us all to dust and emptiness” (“Earth Shakers” 22). Sages arrive at the same understanding, discovering in “something as tangible as nothing” (“Summer 2006” 43) the way to approach death. It is fitting, then, that the collection’s final poem turns to the reader:
In time we’ll come to the riverbed dry;
we’ll stop and marvel there that life has so
run its final course that the dead-end road
leads straight and painless to the other side. (“The Riverbed Dry” 61)
These are not poems of aging or slowing down or creeping existential doubt but of rousing the spirit “for the final stage.” With a light and assured lyrical touch, McAlister takes us on his journey toward that “full emptying” that exacts so much.
In David Adams Richards’s Mercy Among the Children, a young labourer asks the self-taught Sydney, “What should I get from books?” Sydney replies: “that you are not alone — even along this broken tractor road. You need to know nothing else” (310). And so it is with McAlister’s poems. They are not so much read as remembered, mapping a journey we all share but must take alone. What else is the function of literature but to signal this fraternity?
“Read this,” I want to say out loud, and “read it again”!
At press time: Tony Tremblay is Professor and Canada Research Chair in New Brunswick Studies at St. Thomas University. His recent work includes David Adams Richards of the Miramichi (2010) and The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia (2011). His book, Fred Cogswell: The Many-Dimensioned Self, is forthcoming.
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