Miranda Pearson’s third collection of poetry, Harbour, (Oolichan Books, 2009) looks at ways humans are driven to construct territory in whatever space is available, however borrowed or makeshift. In the first section, “Asylum,” Pearson turns, for the first time in her writing, to her experience of working in psychiatry. We hear the voices of both caregivers and patients, and flit back and forth between these two roles, contrasting and unraveling their meaning.
Moving from hospitals to museums, the poems in Section 2, "Preservation", explore the tensions between antiquity and modernity, and how we collect and display artifacts, preserving life in frozen morgue-like containment. Ideas on hoarding are touched upon, how even assembling a collection of poetry is a type of acquisition—of imagery, words, ideas, and other texts.
In the final section, “Liminal”, lovers hastily improvise make-believe homes in hotel rooms, temporary harbours that provide a fleeting freedom within their anonymous settings. Other poems are situated in airplanes—the quintessential “no-man’s land” betwixt and between time and territory. Architectural imagery recurs throughout the collection, linking the themes of shelter and refuge with bridges, stairs, and corridors.
Harbour—the noun and the verb are interchangeable—illuminates the human drive to nest, gathering together ideas on how we seek refuge, a sanctuary, a keep. How we harbour.
Cover photo by Christopher Grabowski - www.mediumlight.com
Miranda Pearson’s background as a psychiatric nurse infuses her third volume of poetry with concerns about women and mental health, in particular with how they are treated. Harbour, as the title suggests, is about seeking a place of safety in a world that is in flux and potentially cruel. The first section, “Touched,” deals mainly with patients undergoing treatment for mental disorders. Pearson gives voice to several women in an institution, forcing readers to consider what constitutes so-called normalcy. In “Helen,” for example, the speaker chastises her doctor: “Oh, so it’s called depression (thank you Doctor) / And it would help if I could talk about it. / I see. Talking. A language / for other families, foreign to mine. / We spoke fluent silence, a rich dialogue all its own.” Helen compares herself to the doctor and nurses, in her inability to make choices or feel. The idea of articulating one’s feelings and thoughts runs through the collection as Pearson also tackles the poetic process—a use of language to explain the ineffable. The contradiction suits the whole question of sanity. Perhaps breakdowns are a reasonable response to an unreasonable situation?
Motherhood is challenged in some poems; it’s not seen as the romantic wonder of giving life but as taking it. In “Newborn,” a prose poem, the speaker says, “Shocked and numb, the new mother staggers to the bathroom. She is herself newborn—into a distressed and bewildered cow,” and “Prisoners,” the poem that follows, succinctly describes the relationship of mother and baby. Psychological pain and its usual treatments appear antithetical to creativity. In “Counterbalance,” the speaker remarks about her visits to a therapist: “Twice a week I lay on that leather couch / and when I could, recounted my dreams— / too often clouded by sleeping pills and wine. / For those years, no poem spoke.
But Pearson’s poems do speak—of pain, acceptance, recovery, and hope. The second section of the book, “Preservation,” has a wider range of topics. Perhaps the most powerful poem in the collection is “Cynthia,” a four-page exploration of two women’s lives. Living in England in 1979, the speaker is initially envious of Cynthia, but when her friend marries a Texan and moves to Houston, she is grateful to remain in London, seeing Cynthia occasionally. And Cynthia is miserable: “At a party, sitting together on the stairs, / people threading around us, I lifted my wine glass to you / and you tumbled into me, again the sudden, violent weeping / and the inability to explain.” When Cynthia and her husband move to Paris, the speaker again feels envy, but Cynthia’s life unravels with motherhood. The speaker comments, “I wish I’d known more then; I had no idea / that becoming a mother can collapse a woman.” Pearson bravely decries the idea that motherhood is the best thing a woman can do—instead it can prevent a woman from living her life.
“Liminal,” the third section, opens up even more, and poetry becomes more central as a topic. “Coal Harbour” is a beautiful piece about the speaker’s reflection on the setting and a heron—and poetry. The speaker says s/he watches the patient heron
while I wait intent on the slow
wooing of the poem. How one word
colours the next [.]
Pearson creates intense images in her poems and, with a few words creates worlds and emotional states. In “Artist’s Model,” the poet imagines what the model thinks in her stillness: “Catatonic, a sort of / death state, the body suspended—her mind / wanders.” She watches snow falling from branches and thinks about a painting of a woman. Her thoughts then drift to teenage boys stripping one of their friends and taking picture to post online—and how “So much is squandered.” Pearson is intent on finding beauty in the world while recognizing the immense flaws of human beings. In “Roses 1” and “Roses 2,” Pearson’s gift for marrying the natural image with human error is amazing. In the first poem, the roses are seen as “Gorgeous fists,” and in the second, the negative image is further developed. The Valentine’s Day roses are “Long-stemmed like rifles,” and they signify the “false and lovely.” While the emotional world in Pearson’s poetry is complex, she articulates the complications vividly. Harbour unflinchingly attends to how human beings try—through both objects and words—to comfort themselves.
Pearson is intent of finding beauty while recognizing the immense flaws of human beings…her gift for marrying the natural image with human error is amazing.”
~ Candace Fertile (on Harbour - The Malahat Review)