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2007 07 10
Reading Gary Michael Dault’s Southwester: 35 Poems

Perhaps it's the July humidity, the kind of superheated air that reminds you wistfully of long country drives through faded brick-and-batten towns, roughly painted 'antiques' signs looming like mile-markers, produce stands tilting at the verge of the highway, clover, manure, skunk and dust mingling and oddly sweet as you pass a tractor turning onto a gravel sideroad. Or perhaps it's Gary Michael Dault's exquisite pen tracing snapshots of southwestern Ontario into poems perfectly evoking passage through rural Ontario, the roads long and the conversations short, the shadows of a hundred small towns stretching across the highway as if to broach an escape.

Throughout Southwester: 35 Poems (limited handmade edition, Lyricalmyrical Press) are tensions arising in small towns whose appearance is the sign of their vanishing. A boarded-up hotel "where the road turns / as if to avoid it"; vacant lawnchairs sitting "like yearning parentheses"; a rural gas station whose ancient, teenaged attendant "stares at me / and leaves through his eyes." Each poem is numbered before it is named, like a series of concession roads, and as such the poems navigate memory the way the creases of a roadmap contain the crumbs of the journey. Dault writes,
Somewhere between
Cambridge and Dundas
there's a place
that has sausage rolls
and we search it out
getting hungrier
as we first mistake gas station
and general stores for it
until there it is
at the bottom of the next hill
the sausage rolls
flaky beyond belief
so that in one tentative bite
there is an exultation
of buttery crumbs
all over your pant legs
and down into the car seat
and you think
well there's nothing to lose now
so you carry on eating
and the car fills up
with this warm new landscape.
But if both traveler and landscape are transformed by the journey, Dault's poems remind us that we cannot truly know a country if we only pass through it:
there's no alignment
when you're driving
all rivers are perpendicular
to you
And it is this lyrical geometry that makes Southwester resonant, like a kind of poetic physics in which both distance and duration are transformed by perspective: "some lowcut girl / nobody to see her sunrise breasts", main street storefronts looming in recollection "but maybe that's just / because you were small," fields like "long quadrilaterals / pitted against you / for you know you will never / attain an order like that," Highway construction where
No detour is temporary
the way it claims
every dislocation
leaves long damage
when you are given
the highway back
you cannot resume
the original speed
of your dignity
'Southwester' is country terminology for a gale blowing from the southwest. At this time of year southwesters appear when humid days grow overcast with the slow gyre of storm clouds forming overhead. The wind rises and stills suddenly, droning cicadas disappear into silence, and "you can see it coming / grey over the mustard fields / trees empty their pockets." You ask directions to the highway while gassing up, wondering whether the town you are leaving will vanish in the downpour. But later, on the highway you notice
So many trucks on the 401
It's like driving down
the main street
of a town that's moving with you.

[In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris writes regularly about Toronto literature and the imaginative qualities of cities.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 07/10 at 10:22 AM

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