Simple snapshots

Apologetic, by Carla Funk, Turnstone Press, 2010. (107 pages) $17.00

Nature and faith are the dominant forces at work in Apologetic, the fourth book by Victoria poet Carla Funk. The two factors are the prevailing winds that shape the world Funk has created, making it rich and vivid one moment, ascetically spare the next.

We’re rapt with wonder as “every star in the cosmos/has come loose from its moorings,/galaxies shaken out and falling” (15), then kneeling in prayer on a bathroom floor.

Butterflies flicker through the poems as often as Jesus—who turns up in a library book and at a high school dance, St. Francis visits the backyard, and God tinkers “with a clock the size of Texas but beautiful” (“Ad Infinitum,” 83).

The poems are finely crafted, consistently careful, with beautiful attention to detail. Kids hoard the glitter of fallen ceiling spackle, thinking it treasure. Birds are precisely identified and catalogued.
There are heart-stopping images in these poems. In the October pastoral of “Evening Song,” dogs “stretch out in the sun’s oily rags” and, later the narrator listens to “two shaky violins/reaching to unhook high notes/from a bent and rusted wire.” (14)

Funk also takes care with sound, like the “the echo-call to cuckoo clock/and glockenspiel” in “Music for Dead Children” (58).

But, the poems that pull toward religious questioning lack the strength and surety of the ones influenced by the natural world. The narrator who offers Eve a series of excuses she could have made to God, or who wonders if the Magi would have made the trip if it were through a B.C. winter, certainly isn’t as compelling as the one who describes the “wilder gutted kingdom” of roadkill in “Highway 16 Sonnet” (42), admitting that she comes to rely on the daily death toll as inspiration for writing.

A recurring theme in the collection is the permeability of human skin to the natural world. Even in the collection’s first poem, “I want to say a thing important and alive,” (3), nature seeps into the body, roots inside, like “Killdeer’s call, wind’s black howl,/that crush of moon-dragged waves on sand –/I want to lock them all inside the lung.”

As the poems focus more on faith, this notion takes a prosaic, ashes-to-ashes tone. In “Metaphysic” “All flesh is grass,/and stone, and wood, and smoke” (47) and in “Waking to eternity” the narrator describes “shoots and tendrils/winding up the bones,/what were your bones,/and leafprints pressed against/your skin,/what was your skin” (80).

Many of the poems read as prayers, often filled with restlessness and unfocused discontent. One standout here is “Morning Prayer” (39), where the narrator struggles to balance spirituality with practicality, asking forgiveness for judging “too easily the faults of others,/including the neighbour lady who every morning/on her way to work backs onto my lawn./Tire marks in the chewed-up sod.”

Funk may have much to say about spiritual life, but the poems in this collection that speak most sweetly are the simple snapshots of people in their everyday landscapes. Apologetic is at its best in lush poems about the natural world, wrenchingly-awkward reminiscences of childhood and tender portraits of a long-married couple reading in bed, washing dishes and picking up bottles from the lawn after a party.

There is much in Apologetic to savour and absorb, and the reader might be advised to follow the narrator’s example in “Summer afternoon, lying on the grass” (57) where “Now is the time for the book to lie folded/over my chest, words breathing/against my ribcage, little mouths/that fog and cloud my body’s slatted windows.”

Kerry Ryan’s first collection of poems, The Sleeping Life, was published by The Muses’ Company in 2008 and was nominated for the Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry in 2009. Her second collection, Vs., is forthcoming from Anvil Press in fall, 2010.

The review above is from Rhubarb.