Subtle sounds

Understories, by Al Rempel, Caitlin Press, 2010 (93 pages).

Al Rempel, in his first poetry collection understories, creates a sense of his Prince George home. Ubiquitous are lumber trucks, chainsaws, the Rockies, the Fraser River, the feel of damp soil and bark beneath your fingernails, trees, rocks, mushrooms, snow, rain, stars, ravens and crows —especially ravens and crows. Often what he attempts to capture is the physicality of an experience. His poem “Black as Crow” (66) takes us into the colour, texture and juiciness of the berries of late summer.

I doubt I’d like to live in Prince George, though, with the portrait he paints in the first section, “back alleys”: too many drunks and too much neglected property. The second section “strata” speaks of mountainsides, of rail lines and of highways running south and east —important contextualization for those in the BC interior. How well he has captured Prince George, will be left for those who’ve spent a lot of time there to judge. It makes me, an easterner, think of my own experience living in a northern city, and of my visits to the Rockies.

Rempel is fond of setting us up to think in one direction, only to startle us with the unexpected. In “At the Other End of the Tide”, for example, he begins cataloguing what will be found in the scree and rubble below a mountain: “sheets of mica / thin as frost on a window pane / basaltic blocks and German tourists / in their rented RVs…” (22). Sometimes this is done through random vulgarities or dissonant images.

His poems rely less on full sentences, more on patterns of speech and often read like lists. Commas are common; periods are rare in some poems, but not in others; capitals are only used for proper nouns (although God has somehow lost that status). There is much experimentation, but no consistent system.

Some of the best moments in Rempel’s poetry appear when he lets the music in. In “Creep” (12), we are carried along by the subtle sounds when we’re told to wear,
pants that refuse to swish. beware of old houses.
there are cricks in the floors of those kitchens.
the uncertain click as you open and close each door.
He juxtaposes images and metaphors, but infrequently plays with internal rhyme or alliteration.

“In Reverse” is a fine poem, where he imagines reversing the process of smoking a pipe: “don’t you wish you could pack up / the universe this way, tidy the galaxies / and stuff the dark matter into a pouch?” (52). This is a rare example of Rempel letting his images carry him into metaphysical territory. Often his poems are merely reflections of physical realities, without letting them draw his thoughts deeper. Even so, his descriptions are concise, and such flashes of insight suggest a strong future ahead for him.

Consider his reflection in “It Was in the Way Things Moved”:
what cannot be shaken will remain
and the autumn leaves fall along
with what we called snow apples —
planted by Opa in 1942 —
names forgotten but not the taste
their insides whiter than sin removed.
how can it be that everything orbits
something else, yet seems so slow,
so that Opa could taste the same
apple on a crisp evening and place
his palm on the same set of stars…
The poet’s Mennonite heritage only appears briefly, in Understories. He pays tribute to his father who “sang hymns to the fields to stay awake” (50) —but also makes a negative statement in “Desire & the Devil” (43), which is about an imagined stage play featuring a Mennonite farm girl who is raped by a family member.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of my favourite poems in this book are ones which have previously appeared in publications. This may suggest that understories was slightly premature, and would have been more consistent given more time. This can probably be said for most first collections —and Rempel, at age 41, may have felt anxious to get his career established.

With understories Caitlin Press has produced an attractive volume, which will hopefully establish this valuable new poet.

D.S. Martin’s poetry has appeared in such journals as Arc, Canadian Literature, Dalhousie Review, The Fiddlehead and Queen’s Quarterly, and he has written two books, So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press, 2007) and Poiema (Wipf & Stock, 2008).

The review above is from Rhubarb 28, Winter 2011.