The Tongues of Earth

27 August 2015

The Tongues of Earth
by Mark Abley
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$16.95 ISBN 9-781550-506105

A swallow’s “Cirque du Soleil”. Prairie fowl “swimming over their reflections”. The belief in “a skinny horse\the colour of burnt almonds\frying in the noonday sun”.

If you are a master poet and thus possess the literary chops, numerous book publications, and the lifetime inquisitiveness that’s required, one day a publisher may honour you by releasing your “New and Selected Poems.” This is the pinnacle, and I commend Coteau Books for recognizing that Montreal poet, journalist, editor and non-fiction writer Mark Abley is worthy of such a title.

The Tongues of Earth represents the best of what poetry can do: enlighten, entertain, empathize, and lift us from our familiarity for moments at a time to offer a bird’s eye view – or an insider’s view – into what it might be like to live a different life.

This is a large, sweeping map of a book. Abley transports us to disparate locations that include the caves of prehistoric art in Chauvet, France; a cathedral in Girona, Spain; Montreal’s Chinese herbal shops “with powdered\centipedes and gallbladders in jars;” and to Banff’s towering Mount Rundle, where “the dust you arouse turns to smoke in the wind.”

He knows well the tenor of his own impeccable voice, but he also wields ventriloquistic skills and credibly represents a Guangzhou engineering student who, in a letter to his father, explains why his passion for a waitress named Lo Chung is preempting his return home for the New Year festival; a stuffed Labrador Duck in a museum; and the British writer and artist Samuel Palmer (d. 1881). I admire the confidence of this. The daring.

Some of these poems, like the imagistic and gentle “White on White,” are akin to landscape painting. Word and image come together as brushstrokes: “I face a February morning by a lake\below a gull at work in the delighted air\as the wet snow settles, flake by flake”.

Direct and off-rhymes add to the book’s melodic tone, and several of Abley’s titles hint at his ear for finding unusual music in unexpected places, ie: “”Egret Song,” “Oxford Sonata,” and “Small Night Music”. In the latter, “a passing truck hurts the night\like a raw throat coughing.”

The poems in this collection take several shapes, from easy-on-the-eyes couplets to the concrete poem, “Into Thin Air,” about the extinct Imperial Woodpecker. In this piece, each of Abley’s three-stanza’d sections are triangles: the long beginning lines progressively whittle down to a single word. The shapes cleverly emulate the bird’s “pointed tail disappearing”. See how much fun poets have?

There’s so much to commend in this collection, from an ode to a mother (that I will use in creative writing classes) to the hilarity of “Vas Elegy,” a vasectomy poem. “The Not Quite Great” is an evocative poem that represents those who are, well, not quite great. Another poem, “Goodsoil,” consists entirely of SK place names.

This is masterful writing. Friends, if you read only one book of poetry this year, The Tongues of Earth would be an excellent choice.


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