It’s gratifying to possess some knowledge of where, both literally and metaphorically, a poet is writing from. The first piece in BC poet/doctor/dancer Karen Shklanka’s second book of poetry – which originated as her master’s thesis – is a touchstone. It introduces us to “the wounded soul of a doctor” who finds repose on Salt Spring Island among the “scent of salted forest, wrap of humidity/from logs returning to earth, and reassurance/from thickets of salal flowers cupped in prayer.” It’s a strong, unique, and elemental premise.
In many ways I feel this seven-sectioned book is not unlike one long prayer, or at least a meditation: upon one’s profession, personal relationships, nature and human nature, how “everything is connected,” and upon the atrocity of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The section that recounts the historical event (from a fictional tailgunner’s perspective; I’m thankful for the poet’s extensive notes on the poems) is titled “Flight Log,” and it’s no small deal that it was long-listed for the CBC Poetry Prize. More interesting to me, however, are the numerous poems in which one can almost feel the poet’s personal grappling about the here and now.
Shklanka is an empathetic physician with many drug-addicted patients. Some of their sad lives, like that of patient S, are recounted in narratives that expose their desperation: “Hospitalization is a home away from homeless,” the author writes. She recognizes that given the pressures on time, doctors sometimes “default to efficiency and having less compassion than a pig.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, hands often appear in the book. In a poem that nods toward the collection’s gorgeous cover image – a bleeding pomegranate – Shklanka writes: “Hands are pale bloody parentheses.” In a poem about a self-harming patient, we read “There’s too much on my hands. My hands are empty.”
In the poem “Indiferencia,” she writes: “the doctor’s fingers/march the cold bell of a stethoscope across/a chest,” and in a Japanese-set poem, there are “Nervous fingers of rain/on the roof of the temple.”
I applaud the poet’s one-stanza poem that describes a hike up Mount Robson (“the summer before/our wedding”) and does not overtly mention marital discord except via the title: “Neither of Us Wants to Keep the Photographs,” and well-chosen, ambiguous words like “stumble,” “hunger” and “sharp descent.” Perhaps all readers also appreciate those lines in which they recognize their own innocuous folly, ie: “I’ve been looking into the wrong end/of the binoculars.”
Shklanka makes excellent poetry of her personal life and her profession, and she doesn’t shirk from the stereotype of doctors as gods: “We have important things to do/and we will fit them into time’s tight dresses.” Wow.
I especially admire the last poem. Written in couplets, “Behind the Cabin at D’Arcy” melds natural details (ie: “rose hips left by the bears”), the calming rhythms of ceremony (achieved partly via word repetition), practical elements (ie: “the wood stove”), and a spectacular image of a love-making couple “superimposed, faintly, on the mountains.” The poem leaves the reader with a sense of healing calm.
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