Songs of Dust – Three Poems – Two by Lorna Crozier, Recent Winner of the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize and One by Danusha Lameris

Canadian poet and non-fiction writer Lorna Crozier. Wearing her, now, signature glasses! Photo Credit: Elfrida Schragen

Sand From the Gobi Desert

Sand from the Gobi Desert blows across Saskatchewan,
becomes the irritation in an eye. So say the scientists who
separate the smallest pollen from its wings of grit,
identify the origin and name. You have to wonder where
the dust from these fields ends up: Zimbabwe, Fiji,
on the row of shoes outside a mosque in Istanbul,
on the green rise of a belly in the Jade Museum in Angkor Wat?
And what of our breath, grey hair freed from a comb, the torn threads of shadows?
Just now the salt from a woman’s tears settles finely its invisible kiss
on my upper lip. She’s been crying in Paris on the street that means
Middle of the Day though it’s night there, and she doesn’t want the day to come.
Would it comfort her to know another, halfway round the world, can taste her grief?
Another would send her, if she could, the rare flakes of snow
falling here before the sunrise, snow that barely fleeces the brown back of what’s
too dry to be a field of wheat, and winter’s almost passed. Snow on her lashes.
What of apple blossoms, my father’s ashes, small scraps of sadness
that slip out of reach? Is it comforting to know the wind
never travels empty? A sparrow in the Alhambra’s arabesques
rides the laughter spilling from our kitchen, the smell of garlic
makes the dust delicious where and where it falls.

Lorna Crozier from Blue Hour of the Day – Selected Poems, McClelland & Stewart, 2007

(I started this blogpost a number of days ago and in it I included Lorna Crozier and her poetry in a group of some of whom I consider the finest woman poets of Lorna’s generation. I think Lorna  would naturally be included in this group if she were American. One of those poets, as of today, is the Nobel Prize Laureate Louise Glück. I still include Lorna in that group with Louise!)

Strange how it works. I start by writing a blog on American poet Danusha Laméris and in that process find a recent poem by her called Dust. Then I thought I remembered a poem called Gobi Dust by Lorna Crozier and can’t find it anywhere. Instead I find the one that begins this blog post. And then I remember the prose poem “first cause: dustin Lorna’s 2009 memoir, small beneath the sky. Then in the midst of doing all that I remember Lorna’s latest book of poems, THE HOUSE the SPIRIT BUILDS.(Please click here to read my blog post on a poem from that book last year) . It had been nominated for The City of Victoria Butler Book Prize and I scramble to hear her read from it on a livestream on Sunday night. Later that evening she was announced as the winner, beating out, among others, her friend and former student Steven Price for his 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize long-listed novel Lampedusa. Whew! Where poems and writers will take you.

I was glad to showcase another Danusha poem but also to showcase alongside it a free verse poem and prose poem of Lorna’s. I am increasingly aware of the tsunami of American poems and poets south of the border. All the outlets for their poems to be celebrated.  Just think of the poem-a-day sites proliferating online from the US and so few non-U.S. poets celebrated there. And how much easier it is to keep track of American poets, established and upcoming, then it is Canadian poets. Yes, we now have a daily Canadian poetry site run the League of Canadian poets and social media outlets but…but…

So many Canadian poets can stand shoulder to shoulder with their American counterparts and even rise above them. But for many Americans that doesn’t register. When I think of Lorna I think of her American contempories like Jane Hirschfield, Marie Howe, Sharon Olds, Marge Piercy, Alicia Ostriker, Louise Gluck, and Heather McHugh. Also the Canadian Ann Carson who has taught in the U.S. for years which has helped elevate her status! Her peers. And if she was American I would guess her name would be a household name in poetry circles as theirs are.

In the epigraph poem to this blog post Lorna’s poetic skills are evident. But in particular, like Jane Hirschfierld does so well, how wonderfully she can focus on one thing and then widen and widen her focus until the world is in her poem. How she manages to unify so many different things! Take dust and then give us an exotic journey around the world! And see how she uses her long lines to mirro the wide breadth of this poem. Its huge ambitions!

But above all, for me, I like how her poem calls out to show how connected we all are. We are not alone. And especially, the heartbreaking moment in these lines and the shattering description of the woman on a street in Paris:

Just now the salt from a woman’s tears settles finely its invisible kiss
on my upper lip. She’s been crying in Paris on the street that means
Middle of the Day though it’s night there, and she doesn’t want the day to come.
Would it comfort her to know another, halfway round the world, can taste her grief?

And these lines become more poigant still when I think of the days and nights of grief that Lorna has suffered since the death of her veloved partner, the poet, novelist and teacher Patrick Lane in March 2019. The grief she is tasting even now, especially as she publicizes her new memoir of  her life with Patrick – Through the Garden. A Love Story (with Cats). Another book of hers short-listed for a prize. This prize, The Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction which comes with a $60,000 payday for the winner.

American poet Danusha Laméris

The four poetic sentences and one grammatical sentence that start Danusha’s poem Dust pull me into her poem so seductively.  Gently yet firmly. Especially this gorgeous phrase:The earth’s gold breath falling softly.


It covers everything, fine powder,
the earth’s gold breath falling softly
on the dark wood dresser, blue ceramic bowls,
picture frames on the wall. It wafts up
from canyons, carried on the wind,
on the wings of birds, in the rough fur of animals
as they rise from the ground. Sometimes it’s copper,
sometimes dark as ink. In great storms,
it even crosses the sea. Once,
when my grandmother was a girl,
a strong gale lifted red dust from Africa
and took it thousands of miles away
to the Caribbean where people swept it
from their doorsteps, kept it in small jars,
reminder of that other home.
Gandhi said, “The seeker after truth
should be humbler than the dust.”
Wherever we go, it follows.
I take a damp cloth, swipe the windowsills,
the lamp’s taut shade, run a finger
over the dining room table.
And still, it returns, settling in the gaps
between floorboards, gilding the edges
of unread books. What could be more loyal,
more lonely, and unsung?

Danusha Laméris from Bonfire Opera, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020

There is a slow comforting genetleness in this poem. Its domesticities. yet how it starts with a wide focus  and then narrows to the inside of a small jar. Then how it throws in a quote from a revered and internationally celebrated figure. From that distance. An echo of the distance the dust travelled to end up in a small jar, in the speaker’s house. How she sings the praises of dust. Elevates it through reference to Gandi, praises it (ironic or not) for its loyalty, loneliness and its being unsung. A lovely contradiction at the poem’s end considering what a song of praise to dust her poem becomes.

I appreciate so much both poems. And I notice their differences. Lorna takes on a bigger palette. The Gobi sand image expands dramatically to include dust or sand from her vast Saskatchewan prairie lands and what also might connect us across wide distances. This idea that breathe too could travel great distances ( not just Covid-19’s two metres) And salt from a tear could cross a continent and an ocean.  That leap. Then the thought of sending snow back to the woman who had sent her salt and grief. And then apple blossoms, ashes: My father’s ashes, small scraps of sadness/ that slip out of reach? Lorna manages to weave in an emotional tension in her poem that vibrates inside me as I read the poem.

Lorna’s poem has larger ambitions than Danusha’s.  I appreciate that. But I like the comforts in Danusha’s poem as well. It asks less of me and that is ok. I can leave my griefs aside and enjoy dust in a way I don’t usually. And especially now since Covid-19 when dust is having more of its way in our house than usual!

Now a very different dust prose poem by Lorna from her memoir of her family and growing up in Saskatchewan.

first cause: dust

In such clarity of light there has to be its opposite.
Something that smears, stains, drops a shroud and forms
a film across the eye. When the wind is up, the season dry,
the world turns upside down: the sky becomes the earth,
particular and grey, and you breathe it in. You can get lost
in dust as in a blizzard. You need a rope to make it from the
house and back again. Dust settles on dugouts
and sloughs, on drifts of snow, on the yellow of canola, on
the siding of houses, on washing huing on the line. It rises
in small asthmatic clouds as your feet hit the ground. It
insinuates itself under the thickest hair, forms a thin cap
that hugs your skull, a caul for the dying. It thickens your
spit, it tucks between your fingers and toes, it sifts through
the shell of an egg. Here’s dust in your eye and ashes
to ashes. It is the bride’s veil and the widow’s, the skin
between this world and the next. It is the smell you love
most, the one that means home to you, dust on the grass
as it meets the first drops of summer rain.

Lorna Crozier from small beneath the sky, Greystone Books, 2009

I feel as if I am inside the casting of a spell when I read this poem. Very different from Sand from the Gobi Desert or Dust by Danusha.  More localized. Big dust but not from far away. Right at home. The big dust of prairie dust storms. Nothing easily domesticated. How she creates the “is-ness” of the dust! Great use of language and metaphor: small asthmatic clouds, a caul for the dying. Big imagery: You can get lost/ in dust as in a blizzard. You need a rope to make it from the /house and back again.

And when I leave the poem how I am haunted by its last five lines. A slow leap out of literal description to something more abstract and conceptual. A hit of a bigger cponcern. Yhe introduction of ashes. A widow, a bride. Sorrow, joy. ANd then the unbridled joy as dust is transformed by rain into a life giving smell! Summer rain on dust! Yes that is lietral. But that abstraction joy! How it transforms the literal thing! Literal dust!

Thank you Danusha and Lorna. Thank you dust!

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