From Poets at the Gate
by Richard Sanger
Imagine for a moment that you live in a small town that was once, it is said, large and thriving. The townspeople hold a belief, which you share, that one day a mysterious traveller will arrive and bring back the town’s former wealth. No one knows what he or she will look like. Because of this, you find yourself taking a second glance at the knife grinder as he rattles his cart down the main street, or being abnormally polite to the nuisances at your door. One question recurs constantly: will I recognize the traveller when he or she arrives? You have asked it so often that it has become a new question: Will I be worthy of recognizing the traveller?
In a time of religious and political scepticism, this anxiety hardly exists: we doubt not our awareness of our worthiness but whether the messianic traveller will ever turn up. Nonetheless, if this anxiety still exists for anyone, it is probably the poetry reader, for poetry can never discount miracles or magic completely.
As a poet, Ricardo Sternberg has managed to convince quite a few inhabitants of the village of poetry readers (close to 750 of them, a healthy majority in fact), that he can bring back at least some of their former wealth. In the year since its publication The Invention of Honey has become a bona fide hit in Canadian poetry circles and is presently headed for that small miracle – a second edition.
How has he done it? By hawking, as the peddler of his poem hawks French perfume and llama lighters from Peru? The most evident, and most engaging quality Sternberg displays in this, his first book, is charm. This is not just charm in the sense of good manners or quaint local colour – though there’s plenty of that – but charm in the deeper, original sense of talismans and magic, of sinuous, enchanting syntax and strange, brilliant images.
The book’s opening poem, “The True Story of My Life”, recounts in the first person the story of a prince who undergoes a long, elaborate and somewhat haphazard education in order to marry a neighbouring princess. However, after spending his entire youth preparing for the event, learning the saraband and the gavotte, the science of Personal Magnetism and – more to the
point – “the secrets of zippers, buttons, clasps and snaps”, at the age of twenty-one, he snubs the princess, sending her three red roses (see what I mean about charm?) And chooses a very different and apparently more banal fate.
The poem’s title is perhaps not wholly a joke. Brazil, where Sternberg spent the first 15 years of his life, was a monarchy for the most of the last century, and, as anyone who has been following Isabel Vincent’s fascinating reports in The Globe and Mail will readily see, its outlandish customs and fads certainly resemble those of the prince’s realm. Furthermore, the prince’s abandoning of his fiancée perhaps parallels Sternberg’s departure for the United States – a land where even the offspring of household servants may become princesses.
At the same time, this is the story of any true poet’s life: all the artifice, the dancing lessons and the preparation that go into doing something that seems completely natural, yet unpredictable. Like most poets today, Sternberg writes a version of the North American free style. What gives his verse its special music is phrasing and cadence:
This is what it’s like
To sleep by the rumbled
syntax of the sea:
the demagogue pours
sounds into your ears
that state nothing
but so loudly affirm:
the stretch and swell
of a sentence rising
that finally breaks
leaving in its wake
the immediate rise
of this next one…
These lines from “Guaratiba”, a poem originally published in The Canadian Forum (December 1989), describe in part the way Sternberg’s own poems work. At other times, he sounds as if those lessons never really left him and he was speaking a very elegant and slightly archaic English, full of overly courteous injunctions and curious fauna:
Oh lover, so excessive
in your zeal:
tell me again of angels
who danced on smaller fields.
The desire to praise, to raise things up by means of language, using fancy words for simple things, lies behind almost all of these poems , and is most evident in the book’s many and compelling love poems. My own favourites, however, are the more elegiac “Thread and Needle” and “Tia”, poems infused with feeling for what Theodore Roethke called “all things innocent, hapless, forsaken”, and the book’s most powerful poem, “A Pelican in the Wilderness”. If Sternberg ever follows Yeats in leaving the poems of love and angels behind to make anger and rancour into poetry, leavening his magic with a bit more realism, the latter poem shows what he might achieve. Either way, one awaits his next book eagerly.