"Miranda Pearson’s exquisite poems in The Fire Extinguisher reveal the human psyche in ways that are both painstakingly beautiful and generous. No detail is too small to find a place in her constantly shifting vision. Threaded through with natural imagery—fire, the sea, animals and plants—alongside many references to visual art, these poems ask brave and difficult questions: how do we find a balancing place between peril and safety, can we endeavour to live in the contemporary world with compassion and hope, how do we live with uncertainty?"
~ Ron Smith
“These are poems you enter and never quite leave. They are alive to the things people don’t say, the complications of a view, the strength and fragility of our bodies. They commemorate the present and admit how difficult it is to live in it. Above all, these are poems that describe our ‘flammable lives’ with shrewdness and grace.”
~ Helen Mort
“Miranda Pearson’s shimmering poetry falls on the reader like snow, leaving one with a gorgeous, mature, complicated appreciation of what the world offers.”
~ Arleen Paré
Cover painting “In Tangle” by James Vanderberg www.jamesvanderber.com
The Fire Extinguisher
In The Fire Extinguisher, Miranda Pearson’s fourth book of poetry, fire imagery is threaded throughout, the abstract and ephemeral located firmly in geological imagery. Sudden chaotic events and seismic shifts take place, bodies ignite, overspill their boundaries, are radiated and cremated. Volcanoes erupt, houses burn. The poems move from destruction and transformation through to reconstruction and renewal, balancing perilously between safety and disaster.
The collection is structured by five sections: In the first, the poems articulate questions of attachment; erotic desire and appetite— both destructive and creative. They are unashamedly vivid and sensual, whilst also darkly comedic. Painting and visual art are invoked, as well as food and the materials of travel. Animals and birds feature, both free and in captivity.
In the second section the poems move from the exotic to the more interior and domestic: Children and office work, a circling back to an English childhood home—actual and remembered—foreshadowing those in the next section in their recognition of aging and loss: “How the body/ is a new sort of friend, flawed/unreliable”
Sections 3 and 4 combine in their close-up examination of illness, taking measure of being held captive in the body. How physical illness is both intimate and distancing. Here the language is attentive and interactive, the poems seeking an alternative, more honest discourse. In the final section of the book many of the poems are set in Scotland, particularly the land and sea of Shetland. The natural world is gratefully embraced and honoured as curative and enduring. The poems reach for a wider view; stepping forward from grief with a sense of hope of recovery and in the power of human compassion.
There is a confidence and conviction driving this work. The lines have a deliberation and clarity whether they are long and dense (as in The Nature Table or A Walk in the Park) or short spare couplets, as in Belvedere or Nil by Mouth. The work remains committed to the lyric possibilities of free verse, although many of the poems employ various forms of rhyme, most frequently in internal or slant form, and sometimes end-rhyme – as in Small Town or Tudeley Church. The extensive use of rhyme adds to the musicality of the work, and arises very naturally from it. The imagery is painterly and borrows from (and refers to) visual art. It is at once direct and candid, and takes surreal/magic realist tangents, much influenced by the psychoanalytical theory of free- association. The tone of the book has a sense of gravity and playfulness balanced together, a tension that is reflective of the content.
The poems in The Fire Extinguisher are emotionally unafraid. They turn on the notions of how the figurative and corporeal world intersects with the un-seeable, the symbolic, the dream-world. Bound by the familiar, by place, they also live in a counter-place - that of memory fragments, the senses, the spirit that makes us human.
Review in Event Magazine, 2016
Elise Partridge, The Exiles’ Gallery, House of Anansi, 2015 Miranda Pearson, The Fire Extinguisher, Oolichan, 2015 Robyn Sarah, My Shoes Are Killing Me, Biblioasis, 2015 Unlike novels, where events and characters usually inhabit a recognizable world, no necessary correlation exists between poetry and our everyday existence. These three poets, all of comparable age, negotiate that relationship and their common concerns with family, disease, death, travel and, above all, memory in fascinating ways. Having first encountered Elise Partridge’s poems in Fiona Lam’s excellent anthology about cancer, The Bright Well, I knew her work was highly sophisticated and literate. In The Exiles’ Gallery, with its densely allusive grasp of history, archeology and the visual arts, Partridge’s inquiring mind finds almost everything interesting and discovers connectedness between many discrete activities going on simultaneously. This in turn produces a kind of wit not often encountered in Canadian poetry. 101 The democracy of perception that pervades her work accords everything the same quizzical, intelligent scrutiny, whether it is the family next door dancing in their living room juxtaposed with photos of her own mother’s wedding in ‘Waltzing’—‘As they duck sparse confetti/in this gray shot,/ knowing how it ended,/I hold my breath’— or in ‘Terminal’ the horrifically realistic depiction of a spider entrapping and devouring a moth. Though often playful, as in ‘X, a CV,’ or ‘If Clouds Had Strings,’ even Partridge’s jeux d’esprit never stray far from the real world. Thus she frames ‘The Imaginary Encyclopedia’ as The contradictory analogue to World Books, Britannicas—where someone in a glaring lab is congratulated on breakthroughs whose unforeseeable application will result in a billion graves. While the sustained irony of these lines from ‘Placard at the Los Angeles Excavation Site, 5002 A.D.’ allows a quasi-scientific look at American mores: charred grates and aluminum cans nearby are consistent with feasts they called ‘barbecues.’ The pits were constructed to receive bright sun, which we think they worshipped as a deity. Similarly, ‘5th and 70th’ convincingly evokes the life and mindset of a homeless man in Central Park in a salvaged office chair, surrounded by the greenbacks of the leaves and imagining himself as a CEO dispensing bonuses. The poem ends: ‘Next fall he will accept/some small donations from these golden trees.’ Its neatness feels natural, unforced. ‘Years On,’ which looks back at a class photo, displays a keen sense of the relativity of past and future: we can’t imagine our seedling gifts topping at sprout, or tangling ourselves beyond surfacing in ghost nets; foresee our caches of memories emptied at death like an old barn so careless of what it kept it tossed its roof to a storm. But suffusing all these insights is a compassion that is always grounded in a tactile energy, not just, as in ‘From a Niece,’ for unfulfilled talents, but also for the setbacks and disappointments of ordinary lives. 102 In ‘Parish Dance’ Partridge juxtaposes a teenage girl’s domestic, personal events with such global issues as Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. Though keenly alert to puns and double meanings, Partridge’s wordplay has none of that coy, watch-how-clever-I’m-being whimsy that often nowadays passes for poetry. For those who knew something of the woman herself, who died earlier this year of cancer, ‘Last Days,’ in memory of a 38-year-old woman battling cancer to stay alive until her child could be born, premature but healthy, is unbearably poignant. What finally strikes one is the kind of constant systolic/diastolic interflow of self and world that distinguishes major poetry. Partridge’s friend Miranda Pearson shares with her not only an enviably light touch around serious themes, and a delightful wit, as in ‘The Cat at the Window,’ a short sequence which gives a cat’s view of the moon, but also the keenest of eyes, especially when evoking the natural world: ‘There’s a bonfire in the distance,/a thread of smoke, pulled yarn’ (‘Cramond Island’). But her approach in this fourth book, The Fire Extinguisher, is more subliminal: an elusive, liquid quality informs many of the poems, which are more obviously personal in the way they hint at, and pose, questions. The opening poem asks, ‘Tell me again, what is it to have the heart known?/To be a child in the hands of another, alive in the mind of another?’ The numerous poems about travelling and the sense of place are often linked to home and a sense of the instinctive, the animal. So when flying north to Canada across the USA she writes, ‘That’s all we can do, follow the invisible pull,/the animal pathway,’ while ‘A Walk in the Park’ concludes with ‘We are animals that live to endure.’ This is linked movingly in ‘The Field’ to ambivalence about reaching menopause: How you thought it would never end, that long arc upward. Of being young, of wanting and not wanting each month the stain of proof, always fighting it. Compared to Partridge, the affirmations toward which Pearson’s poems move seem more tentative. Thus, revisiting a large house now open to the public, she remembers as a child playing hide-and-seek near a stone folly: ‘I would hide there, afraid of being found, afraid of being lost.’ Some of the most impressive—because most focused—poems, such as ‘Radiant,’ concern the poet’s own bout with cancer: You climb on, compliant, and they begin their measuring, their math-chat, red lights 103 tack your torso as if for a plane’s landing. You are a runway. Bisected and branded you keep still. Stretch your arms behind to hold the pole, brace like a stripper— It is in the light, or darkness, of such experience that some of the final poems, located in the Hebrides, can best be read, both for their celebration of the physical, animal world of ‘Gannets, Lerwick’ and for their human counterpart. About the approach of old age she writes, ‘We are learning about leaving;/about holding on. How the body/is a new sort of friend; flawed, unreliable.’ Yet after the restlessness, in ‘Shetland Broch’ Pearson seems to achieve a sense of acceptance and relief in an undemanding intimacy: I wanted to stay. Last year that’s all I wanted, to curl up on straw and wait, wrapped in the sea’s steady rumble, a sound so layered it’s more colour than song. And lying there with you it was like a good death. If no one poem here stands out as powerfully as ‘Cynthia’ in Pearson’s previous volume, Harbour, many memorable affirmations remain. I am left with delicately rendered atmospheres— of tender caring, uncertainty, concern, relief—together with the quiet acceptance of who she is, and what the world is, now. Although a similar atmosphere pervades Robyn Sarah’s latest book, My Shoes Are Killing Me, here memories predominate, usually tinged with a wryly autumnal, valetudinarian quality. The first poem, ‘In the Slant Light,’ about the onset of winter, asks, ‘What happened to noon, high noon?/There used to be noon./Time is evaporating like a tide pool.’ Or, again, in ‘A Box of Old Family Photos,’ ‘where are those years?’ Occasionally, as in the title sequence, we come across delightful images: ‘And a little herd of dry leaves/came drifting across my path./The wind was their shepherd.’ But unlike Partridge and Pearson, much of her poetry reads as statement, reckoning, summing up, with the built-in risk that it will at times become prosaic. Powerful images such as ‘Wind blowing momentary holes in the tree’s/green canopy,’ or in ‘Lacunae,’ ‘Ghosts of old stairways cling/to the brick sides of buildings/flanked by vacant lots,’ are mixed in with, even undermined by, statements that sound as if stored somewhere for possible later use, such as this, from the prose poem ‘What Time Is It?’: ‘Time picks clean the bones of the present, then like a sea catches them up and transforms them, twisting and silvering and 104 eating away the rough edges.’ Most poets do this, but the technique works only if readers are not conscious of it. Whatever their other virtues, neither the title sequence nor ‘Variations on an Untold Story’ and ‘Squares for a Patchwork Quilt’ sound organic. This is especially clear when contrasted with ‘Spent,’ one of the most traditionally formal poems in the book, which, through effective use of assonance, repetition and partial rhymes, movingly and above all lyrically evokes the end of a relationship. So too ‘Thinking of My Father on His Sixtieth Yahrzeit’ skillfully interweaves cadence, wordplay and assonance to create a lyrical density: ... My father was thirty when he surrendered to gravity, leaving me to grow up in his silence, in the eye of his absence. Eye of the storm: my post-war life, my father’s absence in a pocket of quiet between wars. For all the incidental insights and more generic pronouncements about fear for ‘a world gone strange,’ Sarah is not surprisingly at her best when most direct and personal. — Christopher Levenson
Review by Catherine Owen:
I kept hearing the word “patrician” in my mind while reading Pearson’s latest collection of lyric poems called The Fire Extinguisher (the cover a finger-painted swirl of hue-routes). Something about the cooler, but never aloof, reticence of these pieces about relationships, gentled landscapes, cancer diagnoses, art and most prominently, travel. The first line of the poem “Sunset, Kent” sums up a sense of the tension felt in the composition of these poems after a certain silence: “one naturally shies from writing it.” Shies but then is drawn back magnetically as the poet cannot help but labour through the quotidian of existence to establish transcendence, however ephemeral.
Lines that struck my ear relentlessly with their poised and even pained beauty: “How it touches the land with a thou address”; “The slow wooing back of the poem”; “Being ornamental is a form of love”; “We live more slowly, become eighteenth century.” A fusion of Gluckian and Larkinesque sensibilities, dark but sculpturally so, with a scraping of irony that often underlies the tone of many British-born poets from Plath to Duffy. Favorite pieces include: Five Postcards, Volcano, Zombie Invasion, Nil by Mouth and Year’s End, Scotland (more so if Pearson had closed it on the gorgeous rococo emotion of “on the window sill: two silver swans/their tarnished necks entwined.”) Also Birds of Summer and The Nature Table at the end of the book: “lessons on beauty, dioramas of loss” that proffer strong evidence of both Pearson’s honed eye and ear and how potent she can be when composing on inhuman subjects.
The only real concern I had reading these pieces (and I usually dare to say, unlike Northrop Frye, what I would change in a book, and especially so given that Miranda and I were once in a writing workshop together led by Patrick Lane is that frequently, Pearson appears not to trust her endings. At times she continues on much longer than the poem organically requires and at others, she well, fizzles out, literally extinguishing her initial POW with clicheed flatnesses like “their hands gripping/her thick warm fur” or “our voices quiet, back and forth/in the warm room.” Whether this is deliberate, a need to trail off somewhat diffidently or a relinquishing of an unresolvable subject, I don’t know, but Pearson could absolutely allow some of these pieces to unfold more fully to the last line, not to click shut mechanically, but to resolve their own exquisite moments in Pearson’s otherwise memorable and resonant world.