Friday, September 05, 2014

Recent Reads: Braking and Blather by Emily Ursuliak

Braking and Blather by Emily Ursuliak

Published by above/ground press, 2014.

Emily Ursuliak’s new chapbook can be described as slim, even by above/ground press’ standards, but that does not make it slight. The single long poem, set in the vastness of British Colombia’s Mt. Swanzy, seems intent on contrasting expectations of space, stretching over pages in tight, vertical lines of rolling sentences. There’s contraction and expansion happening simultaneously, which compliments the ebb and flow account of two young women being toured around by a boisterous local.

His plump thumbs
are paper weights,
pinning the map,
the heft
of his barrel body
thrown forward,
as his index finger
etches possible routes.

The map
is more for Anne and Phyl
than for him:
Mr. Richter, their savior,
every goat track
and clear-cut path
is a memory woven
within a synapse.

The trio’s antics sound lackadaisical when reduced to a sentence and lend a carefree feel to whole sections of the poem. But with each spin and detour through the Rockies, Ursuliak’s detached voice gives rise to a sharper consciousness that, ever so subtly, casts doubt on the unfolding events. Mr. Richter seems affable enough for a stranger, but his inappropriate stories and suspicious “errands” make him a questionable guide for a night-drive in the wilderness. The language used to introduce Mr. Richter – “plump thumbs” “pinning the map” and “the heft of his barrel body” – doesn’t help, nor does his knowledge of the area which, combined, tips the scale of power squarely in the driver’s seat. This puts the reader in the passenger seat, and not because he or she is oblivious to the tale’s direction. Ursuliak is pitting the reader’s vigilance against the denial that discards worry as paranoia, and that mind game steers the tension.

A ranger lookout,
dwarfed by distance,
perches on a pine ridge
across the valley.
A fulvous glow haunts
its many windows.
The three clink beers
to celebrate the view.

I haven’t spoiled anything, story-wise, because Ursuliak’s tone leaves much to the reader’s interpretation. Internally I even scolded myself on first read, wondering from where was I receiving this perverse anticipation of wrongdoing, but the sense of unease is real. Run-ins with locals reduce the setting to small town familiarity, where otherness can be taken advantage of, and a shift in power, late in the poem, helps Anne and Phyl assert themselves, whether or not they're aware of it. Signs of danger may ultimately go unproven in the text but they’re hardly unfounded, which is why Braking and Blather creates such an impression: it conveys this worm of a worry, surfacing and submerging with each bend in the poem.

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