Writing a book and having it accepted for publication is often a long and arduous journey. It can take years, decades, even. Sometimes, despite all efforts, the stars never align for a writer. Unless one is self-publishing, there is a fairly common “route” one embarks upon.
Like numerous other professional writers’, Heidi Garnett’s work had appeared in reputable literary journals and chapbooks, was broadcast on CBC, and earned her awards. She had honed her craft at the renowned Banff Centre, and participated in other creative writing programs. In short, the poet had an impressive curriculum vitae before her first book, Phosphorus, was ever published, and the proof of her apprenticeship is in the quality of the poems themselves.
Phosphorus is a multi-faceted book. On one hand, it details the atrocities of Nazi Germany in World War II, based on family experience. An aunt witnessed terrors in Hamburg: “a Rorschach of flames\five times taller than the Empire State Building,\people dancing jigs as they melted into asphalt,\their songs deafening.” Sage advice – “Everything can be taken from you,\except what you have learned.” – is offered by a father. Uncles learned to “keep hunger away by chewing bark”. The historical biographies are passionately and unsentimentally relayed. (Sentimentality – the death knoll for poetry – screams of amateurism.)
The book also, however, offers gentler evocations, upon everything from “The Wish Book” (“You could spend hours\looking at the Sears Roebuck catalogue”) to smalltown decline. In “Stealing Blue,” I admire Garnett’s image of a smalltown graveyard as “a picket crossword puzzle holding secret clues.” In the section “Ground Truth,” there are a series of honed “snow” poems.
My favourite Garnett poems are those that address nature and the elements. In “Edges,” she writes: “The northern lights are tissue paper\folded into greens and mauves and blues.” In the superb “Fog”: “Fog moves\like a sleepwalker in bare feet … memorizes low places.”
I also appreciate the order of the poems themselves: it can be difficult to get this right. The book gets off to a grand start with two strong pieces guaranteed to make the reader feel, and ends with a zinger titled “Cognac”. In a collection that includes poems which feature the depth of “man’s inhumanity to man” (and woman), Garnett demonstrates how, despite the depravity, at the close of the day and at the last breath of life, there is still, always, a reason to sing. This is the way to end a book:
I tell you, life has been rich. I have known time
to stand still, light to stay suspended in a bead of amber,
and with it has come a surety, a belief love satiates us
enough to face our hunger, the acceleration of gravity,
the long winter. Don’t say anything. Tonight I believe
in immortality, that we will live longer than desire
and know one another; be smoothed and filled
by the earth itself.
Heidi Garnett, I’m glad your stars aligned.
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