Strange Fits of Beauty & Light by Karen Massey (above/ground press, 2014)
In a discipline where capturing the first draft is considered everything, the attraction to erasure poetry seems plain. A foundation is usually presented in pristine shape and becomes an immediate subtext (or talking-point) once the author has taken her scalpel to the work. But when that “first draft” is a smattering of Archibald Lampman’s sonnets, as it is in Karen Massey’s collection Strange Fits of Beauty & Light, that talking-point risks becoming clout. Lampman’s work tends to get more attention in high school syllabuses than Canada’s small press circles, so Massey’s choice brings a formal gravitas but also, curiously, hype. What angle will the erasure form reveal about Massey, let alone a populist poet such as Lampman?
Trees dream through me;
Sweet trees flower
Little notes of red heat all day
Source: “‘Sweet Trees,’ I Cried, In Plaining Dreams Astray” May, 1885
What early poem “Red” suggests, with its nod to the compact serenity of haiku, is that Strange Fits of Beauty & Light has no big reveal, meaning none of the overt commentary erasure projects tend to convey through source material. And that first impression stays true over the next twenty-something pieces, all of them taking pensive glances at mortality, love and nature. Such themes advance the already timeless feel of Massey’s erasures, generated through strands of Lampman’s sometimes antiquated vocabulary and linked into cadences that disclose modern concerns: having enough time, responsibility and aging, among others. Nature poems like “Night Mist” and “Summer Night” hover as weightless oases around knottier entries about unnamed conflicts.
A sad, beautiful dream
Came and fled
In slow soft ruin.
A so-so day comes pillaging
In wild harsh silent wreckage.
Source: “The Ruin of The Year” 1892
A theme of persistence meanders these isolated poems, winding the occasional obstacle in search of a creative impulse Massey and Lampman can share. In “Prayer”, after Lampman’s “A Prayer”, Massey captures it, asking art to “smother us in light”. Elsewhere, she nurtures whatever gleaming she can and moves forward, undeterred:
Sign me on
For a life of leisure
And broad hours:
To think small things,
To wander like the aged,
Weary and grown heavy
Source: “Knowledge” May, 1887
As promised by the cover image of Lampman among blocks of redacted space, Strange Fits of Beauty & Light seeks only to reassemble an exceptional canon of sonnets into new poems that delight on their own merits. In lieu of a hot-button subtext, this erasure work draws attention to its own discipline — namely, deep reading and really absorbing oneself in the words and possibilities of a text. Perhaps that is my own commentary, subbing in for the author’s lack of need for one, but I enjoy that Strange Fits of Beauty & Light simply responds to the universal themes Lampman formed his reputation on. In repurposing the feast that is these sonnets, Massey creates stunning appetizers that speak just as clearly to the wonder of today’s world.