Issue 9 :: Summer 2007 
 Avatar Review
Howard Miller

Lorna Crozier: Silence into Language

    Lorna Crozier has been one of the leading Canadian poets for the past 35 years. Born and raised in Saskatchewan in 1948, she received degrees from the University of Saskatchewan (B. A.) and the University of Alberta (M. A.), has published 14 volumes of poetry and edited or co-edited several poetry and non-fiction prose anthologies (some with her husband, poet Patrick Lane), has held a number "writer-in-residencies" throughout Canada, and currently serves as Chair of the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria. She has won a number of awards, including the Governor General's Award, the Canadian Authors Association Award, and the Pat Lowther Poetry Award, all for Inventing the Hawk (1992) and the Pat Lowther Award again in 1995 for Everything Arrives at the Light, among a number of others, including the distinguished Professor Award from the University of Victoria in 2004 and an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Regina in 2005. Her fifteenth volume of poetry, The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems, is just being released and provides a retrospective of her career in poetry. (Note: I had hoped to obtain this volume and use it as the basis for this review but was unable to procure it in time; consequently, I have used a number of her earlier volumes in preparation of this article. See the "Bibliographical Note" at the end for specific references and notational conventions used in this review.)

    In an interview published in 2003 ("Interview with Lorna Crozier" by Clarise Foster, Contemporary Verse 2: The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, Volume 25, Number 3, Winter 2003), Crozier stated, "I have always wanted to turn what's been silent into language . . . ." In a very real sense, this idea is fundamental to much of her work, work in which she indeed gives a voice to those who might well not have had a voice otherwise; further, she indicates this includes "my father and men like him . . . ," individuals of no unusual ability or merit who make up the body of society. In "Facts About My Father" (IH, 71-76; see "Bibliographic Note" at the end for references), a prose poem in 20 brief sections, Crozier paints a detailed factual portrait of her father, both positive and negative without judgment. She says of him:

"His brains were in his hands, he could fix anything,
his fingers knew exactly what to do,"

and also that

"[h]e buys hot goods in the bars and sells them for
a profit. He cheated his son-in-law when he sold him
a car."

She builds up a portrait of him, a strong man possessed of mechanical, musical, and other abilities and at times capable of caring generosity, but also an alcoholic, irresponsible, and unreliable individual; she makes no apologies nor excuses for him but shows him as he was. In that sense, she allows him to speak through his actions for himself, turning his silence into comprehensible language. In "A Kind of Love" (WLWLG, 84-85), she talks about her ambivalent feelings towards him; at times, as when he embarrassed her by being drunk at her high school graduation, "[h]is love made me ashamed"; at other times, however, "I felt protective," and she goes on to talk about the effects on her of this kind of love:

this too is love, the kind
I'm most familiar with --
the weight I claim
I cannot bear and do,
and do.

    Family is important to Crozier, and she has a number of poems about both her parents and other family members, as well. But she is not fundamentally a confessional poet; she gives voices to fictional families as well, often in the form of dramatic monologues. The sequence "Counting the Distance: Another Family's Story" (WLWLG, 41 - 66) consists of 13 poems revealing the destructive effects of an adulterous relationship on a fictional family through the voices of various family members . In "The Wife: No Word Can Hold It," the wife not only knows the truth but tries desperately to accommodate herself to the situation:

When he slides between our sheets
near morning, he believes he keeps
her scent a secret. How can he not sense
my knowing? I curl around him,
pretending sleep, pray her smell
will soak into my skin and
he will take me hard
without the gentleness he thinks I want.

In "The Old Order" (EAL, 27-29), Crozier presents us with a third-person narration that shows us the secret shame of another family: the 13 year old daughter of the family, youngest of four, leaps from a third-story window, and it is only after she miscarries the child with which she is pregnant by her father is the doctor called and told she has fallen down the stairs. In a final irony, she is the daughter who cares for him at the end of his life when he has been reduced to infantile helplessness.

    Crozier also reaches beyond the family to give silence language. In "The Red Onion in Skagway, Alaska" (EAL, 60 - 61), she visits a preserved Gold-Rush era saloon which was also a brothel; learning something of the lives of the prostitutes who worked there and seeing a photograph of them, she compares them to

. . . the ponies
who never got to leave the mines,
some born blind inside,
the stories go, pulling car after car
in the numbing dark.
She then describes the four young girls in the photograph:
but they all look pale,
two with their reluctant pets
tucked into the fleshy curve of their arms,
in the Red Onion
perhaps all they knew
of love.

    Not surprisingly for someone who came to maturity in the second half of the 20th century, Crozier is deeply concerned with what it means to be female. The previous three poems illustrate her concern with the victimization of women, but she also gives expression to other aspects of femaleness, as well. She celebrates the physicality of womanhood in "News Flash from the Fashion Magazines" (IH, 18 - 19): "Breasts are back!" she asserts, and, rejecting typical advertising images of what breasts should be like, proclaims:

Let's stand up for breasts
any size, any colour,
breasts shaped like kiwi fruit,
like mandolins, like pouter pigeons,
breasts playful and shameless as puppies.

Likewise, in "Variation on the Origin of Flight" (IH, 17), she rejoices in the clitoris:

. . . you feel it
flex and flutter
beneath your lover's tongue
as feather
after slow inevitable feather
it dreams the world's
first wings.

(Crozier similarly considers male sexual physicality in "The Penis Poems," a sequence of 12 poems in Angels of Flesh, Angels of Silence.)  She explores adolescence as experienced by a maturing female in poems such as "The Swimming Pool" (EAL, 62 - 63); the speaker sneaks into a swimming pool at night in order to explore

my sex unfurling in the broken
light that stroked me underwater

with a boy she hadn't known previously. In "The Summer of the Large Hats" (WLWLG, 24 - 26), the speaker and a friend begin to explore a same-sex relationship.

    Crozier also explores other aspects of the female, such as nurturing. In "Learning to Read" (EAL, 23 - 24), the fictional Mary is sustained, on learning to read as an adult, by the recipes given to her by her now-dead mother, words that bring her mother back to life:

And it's as if her mother were here
again beside her in the kitchen
measuring cinnamon,
that most beautiful of sounds,
while Mary reads out loud
what is needed next
and finds it
newly labelled on the shelf.

In "On the Seventh Day" (IH, 10 - 12), it's left to God's wife to tidy up after his work of creation; being the forgetful sort, he left out most of the details, so

. . . she had her work to do.
Everything he'd forgotten
she had to create
with only a day left to do it.
Nurturing, indeed.

    Crozier, however, goes farther in giving silence language; often in her work, she gives voice to animals and even at times the inanimate. In "Fear of Snakes" (AFAS, 13), for instance, she recounts an event from her childhood when several boys chased her with a snake; unable to catch her, they nail the snake to a telephone pole. Sharing its terror and pain, she

. . . loved it then,
that snake. The boys standing there with their stupid hands
dangling from their wrists, the beautiful green
mouth opening, a terrible dark O
no one could hear.

In "Lesson in Perspective" (AL, 7), she describes the world as it would be created by the cat, a world of limited colors but motion to attract the eye and interest, flying and scurrying things to pursue, and

At dusk he says a word that moves
so lightly across the mind
it must be a small, nectar-sipping moth,
feet of such delicate design
it walks on petals and leaves no bruise.

In "Four Cows in Moonlight" (W, 31), the speaker passes a group of cows at dusk just as the moon is rising but ignores what she sees until she notices

I was the one walking past that brightness,
my mind on lesser things,
until I saw their faces lifted,
their blazed, moon-baffled eyes.

"Sand from the Gobi Desert" (W, 4) shows how the inanimate -- sand from the Gobi, pollen from Saskatchewan, salt from a Parisian woman's tears, Crozier's father's ashes -- can be carried far across the world and ultimately join distant lives together:

. . . Is it comforting to know the wind
never travels empty? A sparrow in the Alhambra's arabasques
rides the laughter spilling from our kitchen, the smell of garlic
makes the dust delicious where and where it falls.

    Thematically, Crozier's work often shows us the unexpected wonders to be found in the ordinary, everyday world and events. A number of these poems (but not all by any means) contain the word "angel" in the title; the concept of "angel" appears to represent for Crozier the arrival of this sense of wonder. In "Angel of Tigers" (IH, 53), a field of wheat rippling in the wind takes on the appearance of a tiger:

The wheat ripples in the wind
like muscles under the skin
of a great cat.

Beautiful in its very dangerousness, the field waits poised for "the gazelle-footed touch of the rain." In "The Motionless Angel" (IH, 54) a horse motionless in a snowstorm becomes white on its storm-facing side and black on the other; the black is so intense that

. . . anything could walk
right through it
and disappear.

A Noh actor, in "The Simplest of Movements" (W, 12) in a London play, is unable to perform

. . . the simplest of movements.
Such as, sitting in a chair and lighting a cigarette.
Such as, cutting a loaf of bread while talking
over his shoulder to an imaginary wife.
However, asked by the director to "Show me Ariel," he
made instantly of his body a lightness
that flitted and swooped through the wings
though he stood --
what we would have called --
perfectly still.

    But Crozier also recognizes that living involves pain and loss as well as joy and beauty, and these figure significantly in her work, as well. One such loss is the loss of certainty; in "God's Yes and No" (AL, 9 - 10), God creates " Yes" and "No" as certainties but somehow other words worked their way in, though at first "[i]t seemed a small annoyance." He didn't realize the consequences:

Before he spat in clay
and pinched into shape
they had a language waiting --
maybe, kind of, guess so,
yeah but, almost, I don't know . . .

Loss of loved ones and the inevitable changes these bring are another source of pain; in "Walking Into the Future" (WLWLG, 79), she shows us the effects of her mother's death:

Months after, your mother's death is
something you pull on every morning,
old flannel tight across your chest.

While some things remain the same -- she and her husband live in the same house, the same tree still drops plums on their deck -- not everything can:

What changes? Lately there are things
I do not tell you -- I ache inside, you
sadden me . . . .
Sun-blind, I walk into the future,
see only shapes -- a couch, a chair,
and someone rising. I don't know who
you will be.

Always, too, we are drawn in memory to what has been lost and are reluctant to give up; she says in "Wildflowers" (WLWLG, 96),

. . . Wild near the marsh
I find a kind of Rue where only yesterday
leopard-spotted frogs leapt in imitation
of the heart's strange fondness
for what is lost.

But there is some degree of comfort even in loss, as she shows in "All Things Passing" (W, 54):

Each new day cloaks itself in mourning --
that's why it begins in darkness.

. . . .

The plum's another story: even in the dark
the bees are working, zipping back and forth
between its petals and their waxy tombs.
Remember the honey in the skull, the mind
made out of sweetness? Sunday's come again.
O Lord of Dailyness, give us the common
bread and ease of each lost thing.

Late Addendum:

I have just received The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems (McClelland and Stewart, 2007) and simply wanted to note that it's an excellent representative gathering of Crozier's work. It draws upon the six volumes I used in preparation of this article as well as two other volumes, and
presents an accurate and valuable cross-section of her work from the 1980s to the present; as such, I highly recommend it.


To buy:
The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems
Written by Lorna Crozier
Format: Trade Paperback, 264 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
ISBN: 978-0-7710-2468-9 (0-7710-2468-1)

* * *

Bibliographical Note:

I have used the following volumes in preparation of this article; they are identified in the article by the indicated abbreviations of their titles:

AFAS -- Angels of Flesh, Angels of Silence, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1988.

IH -- Inventing the Hawk, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1992.

EAL -- Everything Arrives at the Light, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1995.

WLWLG -- What the Living Won't Let Go, McClelland and Stewart Inc., 1999.

AL -- Apocrypha of Light, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 2002.

W - Whetstone, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 2005.

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