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Poetry reviews: The Major Verbs by Pierre Nepveu and Soul Mouth by Marilyn Bowering

One of the great things about poetry is that it’s multi-purpose. It can be emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating; it can run the gamut from light entertainment to deep profundity. There’s nothing trifling about The Major Verbs and Soul Mouth, as their titles suggest. But their seriousness is enlightening, not ponderous.

Pierre Nepveu isn’t well known in English Canada, but the Montreal-based poet and essayist has won the Governor General’s Award for his work in French three times (twice for poetry, once for non-fiction), and the French version of The Major Verbs was a finalist in 2009. The focus of Nepveu’s extended meditations in this collection (fluidly translated by Donald Winkler) are “the major verbs”: as he puts it, “to be born, to grow, to love,/to think, to believe, to die.”

Nepveu summons the minutiae of daily life as talismans of something more meaningful. In the second section of the book, “Stones on a Table” are the objects of the poet’s attention. But they become much more than a handful of rocks. Though “inert and unyielding/and faceless,” they “spell out in silence the word forever,/least human of words” — they are weighted, in a metaphorical sense, with time, mortality and eternity.

Ordinary objects also take on metaphysical significance in a touching elegy for his parents, in which the grieving poet turns the house of his childhood into a kind of memory palace. “The long ago sea” of a holiday his parents once took “is folded/into the photo albums” and he imagines their “maritime happiness” and sense of an unlimited future.

For Nepveu, the quotidian opens into the transcendent, and it’s exhilarating to follow the supple flow of his thoughts as he moves from one to the other. He writes of “the mind always avid for signs” in one poem. It’s an apt description of the poet himself, for The Major Verbs showcases an avid, and brilliant, mind at work.

B.C. writer Marilyn Bowering is perhaps better known for her fiction (her novels have been nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the Orange Prize, among others) but she has also published more than a dozen collections of poetry.

The most striking aspect of Soul Mouth is Bowering’s ability to shift seamlessly from a scene of the commonplace into a mystical realm. Thus, a poem depicting a family picnic features exact, homey details (“from the trunk of one of the Chevys, the cousins brought out/rope, and we ran to take sides”). But the tug-of-war takes a mythic turn: “the moon, the planets, the stars doubled in water/and pulled hard too,/through the uncoiling sea,/the dead along with us,/in their too tight good clothes.”

The continuity between the living and the dead comes up repeatedly, not only with respect to loved ones the poet has lost but also, in a collective sense, our connection to antiquity (elements of fairy tales, folklore and mythology echo throughout the collection). Doors are another recurring motif, perhaps as a symbolic reminder that the ordinary can serve as a threshold onto another reality.

There’s a crisp, luminous clarity to Bowering’s language, whether she’s describing birds “small as pull knobs” or a dreamlike vision in which desire takes the shape of a fish, “like a small cache of silver.” But there’s also depth to that beguiling simplicity. On one level, the following lines describe setting off on a journey. Read them as an allegory of life itself, however, and they are both powerful and poignant — and indicative of this collection’s reach:

I must put on my shoes,

pick up the bag by my side;

I must remember who I have to meet

and when; time is passing.

Toronto writer Barbara Carey is The Star’s poetry columnist.

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