In Decoys, the new poetry collection by William Robertson, the long-time Saskatoon scribe plumbs his own history and threads personal anecdotes into a textured fabric that reflects the prairie from what might be considered a bird’s eye view. In the country, kids push a puck around on ice “rippled/frozen by the wind,” and at Gull Lake we see “the grass in all its greens,/that bull, sequestered from the rest”. Birds are carefully considered and rendered poetic in myriad unique ways, ie: “Ruffled grouse leads its perfect/rusty brown and black fan/out of the spruce, through the ditch,” and in “Raven on Frozen River,” the poet beautifully writes “I could spend all day/watching you divide/snowy silence/from itself”. The author’s urgency to “hold onto things beautiful” is apparent, page after page.
There’s a reverence for the rural, here, including lakes, and the Muenster area, with its amicable chickadees at St. Peter’s Abbey, where Robertson penned some of these poems at Saskatchewan Writers Guild artist retreats, but the city is also carefully considered – and sometimes found lacking – “Outside the rickety/red fence, unpainted for years, the weeds/and long grasses try their best/to hide the garbage”. Workmen noisily improve houses, “tapping back into shape/these failing organisms”.
Poems feature both the innocence and the bravado of the young, and expose a life not measuring up to the advertisements, ie: a scene from a duck hunter’s calendar is contrasted against an unproductive father-son hunting trip; children sculpting snow into forts, as shown in schoolbooks and on TV, is measured against the futility of trying to do the same with “the dry prairie stuff/that crumbled in our hands;” and the fish in Turtle Lake don’t measure up to the flashy American magazine and TV fishing-show fish a son dreams about.
Small things breathe through these poems: flies, wasps, mice, wildflowers, and an August dragonfly, whom, Robertson writes, “gathers its memories/of mid-summer air, rises/on invisible wings, leaving me/heavy and human on the sidewalk”. Again, as with many of these reflections, there’s a hint of melancholy, of not measuring up, but also a recognition that perfection’s found in the ordinary.
Stylistically, as both a poet and a writing instructor, Robertson clearly knows what he’s doing. Several poems feature rhyming words on the last and third last lines, which adds a musical lilt. A couple of prose poems are nestled among the free verse poems. Sound is cleverly used in “Dead Clown,” which features a bird in a “black/and white gown,” (magpie, I assume). The cawing bird’s “gaudy yak/yak” is echoed in Robertson’s rhyming – or cawing – words” “call,” “all,” and “fall”. This collection makes a good case for listening closely to poems to hear the small songs within them.
Fish and fishing are other favoured subjects here, and in reading these thoughtful poems in particular, I’m reminded of how writing poetry requires a kind of faith not unlike that of an angler: you sit quietly, you wait, and sometimes, you land a good one. This book is filled with keepers.
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