A Bewitchery of Words and Natural and Mythic Worlds – The New Poems of Nova Scotian Poet Anne Simpson

Nova Scotian poet, adjunct professor, essayist and novelist, Anne Simpson. Photo Credit: St Francis Xavier University


I go into days and nights, one after the other. A cup set down,
a scraped chair.

Outside, a coyote, tangled yelps. Moon, the way it lies

on snow. Snakebite blue.

I get up, stone.
I sit down, stone. King of morning, noon, night. Eat each stone,
spit it out.

This is what’s called normal.
It isn’t normal. It’s deathwater.

Don’t let me lose the sound of you. I’ll make a raft of your laughter.
My nose against your nose. Your tongue—
O, now it’s stone.

What have I done to you?

Anne Simpson from strange attractor, McClelland & Stewart, 2019

This poem captures, I think, some of what many of us, isolated at home because of Covid-19, are feeling. Maybe not the depth of the sense of loss in this poem but at least some of it. Maybe a sense, too, of the loss of our old selves, the hurly-burley ones racing around in our normal busyness. That sound of us.

And that question: What have I done with you? And maybe more challenging and profound, what if it’s not the busy one we miss but the one whom we left behind in our busyness. The one, during this time of quiet for so many, we may be forced to acknowledge, to confront. And normal, as not normal, as deathwater!  What deathwater do I need to spit out? The stone-cold taste of it.

And now by way of introducing Anne Simpson I need to declare I know her, the celebrated Nova Scotian/ Canadian novelist, essayist, teacher and poet, She was generous enough to write a commendation for the back of my poetry collection Hyaena Season in 2016. Okay, that’s out of the way!

I first got to know Anne at a Jane Hirschfield poetry retreat in Key West, Florida in 2015. It felt somewhat surreal to be sitting in the same circle, as fellow students, with someone, Anne, who had won the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize in 2004. But Anne’s easy modesty and understated manner made it easy. But make no mistake: as much as Jane Hirschfield is one of the most accomplished poets of her generation on her side of the border, Anne is surely one of those on our side!

The poem featured above carries so much of the visceral wildness, the tidal pull, the duende, the body-held ache of so many of the poems from strange attractor, Anne’s latest collection, released last year. This poem belongs in one of two sequences based on the world’s first known written work, inscribed on stone: Gilgamesh.

This poetry epic recorded in Sumerian times about 4500 years ago centers around the friendship of a king, Gilgamesh and, Enkidu a wild man. At first they meet as bitter adversaries but after an epic fight which Gilgamesh wins, they become close friends. Later Enkidu descends to the underworld to find something of Gilgamesh’s and never returns. That loss! And how I feel the loss in Anne’s poem.

And how this poem, from the sequence I Can’t Take You, overflows with Gilgamesh’s grief at the death or loss of Enkidu. And the poem is big enough to stand for the numbness anyone might fall into after a huge loss. For us, our losses and our fears and uncertainties during this pandemic.

And oh, how Anne contrasts the simple domestic moments of the speaker, a cup put down, a scraped chair with the haunting wildness outside. Moon, the way it lies//on snow. Snakebite blue! Now say that line a few times and try not to be intoxicated by it. Snakebite blue!  And these domestic moments contrasted with wilder ones. I wonder if this is a deliberate reflection of that opposition between Gilgamesh and Enkido? Perhaps. And I wonder if some ways this isn’t a huge theme in Anne’s book. Trying to find the bridge between the domestic and wild in all of us. Not losing one to the other.

And the power of Anne’s repetition of stone. It mobilizes the poem and paradoxically grounds it. This stone of grief, or is it acedia, the older and more complete word for a complex melancholy Anne writes about in an essay. No matter. The pure aching heaviness: I get up, stone. I sit down, stone. And then the reference to the you, is it Enkido?, and the stomach dropping words: Your tongue—/ oh now it’s stone. And for me, when I hear the poem’s concluding cry: What have I done to you I hear two a reference to two yous. To the speaker and the other you. And I hear that cry inside me. That cry I have heard when I have left the vital, the vulnerable and ever-so-alive Richard, behind. When I lapse into a tedium of so-called normal.

Anne’s mastery of diction and unexpected word choices and images gives a Cirque du Soleil energy, and acrobatics to her poems. Lifts them off the page. Makes the words, if you say them, fly out loud in your mouth. You can hear that hear in the first part of the poem that begins the sequence: I Can’t Take You.


You’re gone, Enkidu. Time won’t have anything to do with you.

You wanted me to drag your body to the creek bed, water loose-streamed
over skin, bones.

Caterwaul in the alder weave, some injured raven. No closer, clawing
up my throat, feather-tucked bird black.
What am I now?

In time out of time. Shiver, O, left me here, yowling through wing-bitten
craw. You, rigid on my lap.

Anne Simpson, ibid

The horrible realization Anne evokes in these words: Caterwaul in the alder weave, some injured raven. No closer, clawing/ up my throat, feather-tucked bird black.

Another poem in the collection I want to highlight doesn’t have the verbal gymnastics of some of its other poems but its unexpected metaphor and wisdom gut-grabbed me. Especially the last line: What we set out to be once, fearlessly. That fire.

Change Room

Girls trying on dresses in the change room,
scattering clothes on the floor—maples and poplars,
honey locusts and oaks. You’d never know
these leaves were dying. Watch how they flit,
turn themselves inside out, slickered
yellow, orange, lipstick red. Adolescent
crushes: her promises, his sweet
talk, kisses behind the garage. It’s true
they’ve given themselves over to what comes,
next. Last things, yes, but first they’re alight.
What we set out to be once, fearlessly. That fire.

Anne Simpson from strange attractor, McClelland & Stewart, 2019

Anne is a poet at the top of her game. A tired metaphor but apt. And you can see it in Change Room. That unexpected metaphor of the girls as trees, their dresses their leaves and the leaves, girls inside those dresses, their dying. All of this conjured from a changing room! The tension in the poem between the dying and the living of these girls! Their bright colours, the kisses behind the garage. It takes a confident poet to write a compelling show and tell poem! Showing the girls, their adolescent aliveness, but then being able to derive a deeper meaning from it all and say it!

………………………………..it’s true
they’ve given themselves over to what comes,
next. Last things, yes, but first they’re alight.
What we set out to be once, fearlessly. That fire.

How this last line brings the poem right into my life. What fire have I let die down or worse go out.  How to be alight! I used this line as a prompt in a poetry therapy session yesterday and a client responded with this astonishing line: I shall not ask how to be the fire. This claiming of the client’s own fire. Their choice. Not someone else’s.

To end here’s the collection’s first poem. Grounded in made-fresh images of the natural world. That world Anne embraces with such attention in the collection. Whether the images are from Nova Scotia, Key West (during the Hirschfield retreat) or closer to home for me in Courtenay where she spent some time in a writer’s residency a few year back they call out the wonder that there is this world and we are here, alive, on it!

Rain Self

Knotted coming and going, eider ducks rainwinged, blown off course, spent,
after-storm crepuscular, a paddle’s drip, scoop above half-buried cupboards
of clams, saucers and spoons and cups without handles—scup, scoop—and
on the surface, sleek face before birth, rippled, sliding. Face of an unknown self.
Selfless, the same word backwards, selfless.

Anne Simpson, ibid

Anne knows how to make words sing in he mouth!  And she lets us lose ourselves in the selves of her poems! Find the faces of our unknown selves.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *