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2006 12 19
Imagining Toronto | Reading Gary Michael Dault’s The Milk of Birds
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The season remains poised before winter, an appropriate backdrop to my reading of Gary Michael Dault's new collection of poetry, The Milk of Birds (Mansfield Press, $16.95). The 100 poems in this collection (inspired initially by American translator and essayist Kenneth Rexoth's 100 Poems from the Chinese (1971) but unfurling around strikingly urban motifs), offer glimpses into the hushed moments immediately before and following tectonic shifts in the weather, love, seasons, and senescence, and provide still images of the organic city in constant motion.

"the moon / like a manhole cover" Dault writes. But only at night, after a rain, is it possible to glimpse this mirroring, when "The endless evening / sieved through my window screens / ends up as cubes of twilight / on the study floor." In Dault's poetic hemisphere, almost everything is subject to inversion, a gentle poke at absurdity: harbour boats bark like dogs and loll in city beds, worms are devoured by the earth, neighbours hide their garden shears from the knife-sharpener's tolling truck. But in this city, when whenever we stop for a moment, we notice how absurd it is to mistake the sound of highway traffic for a waterfall, how paradoxical it is to live so privately in such proximity. And yet these contradictions offer relief, if only in the form of existential loopholes. Dault writes,
On the subway
today
with hundreds
of other people

I thought how odd
that I shall never see
any of them
again

Then
in a subsequent moment
of redress
I thought
how lucky
that this is so
Like the satisfying suck of leaves washed into gutters as the season ebbs, there is a kind of relief at the separation, even as it reminds us of things pulling away from us: our youthful loves, the lushness of a summer garden, birds rising against the downwardness of the pelting rain. The crowded train pulls away from the subway station a hundred times a day.

I am very fond of short poems that carve life in this city into sharp relief, and Dault's poems are intensely phenomenological. They remind me a little of Dennis Lee's work in Civil Elegies, seemingly prosaic descriptions that invite meditations upon our own mortality and ways of relating to others. I enjoy the way Dault's poems break open the disciplined structure of Chinese poetry while preserving its didactic qualities, in much the same way that slightly unkempt laneways break open the obedient grid of the city's streets. Dault's poems provide little stopping places that give us an opportunity to listen and think.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 12/19 at 01:16 PM

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