The Ormsby Review

If surprise is a necessary ingredient of good poetry, Miranda Pearson’s fifth volume, Rail, will not disappoint. Those who know her four previous volumes — Prime, The Aviary, Harbour, and The Fire Extinguisher — will recognize familiar virtues. One is a keen awareness and exploitation of the sounds of words, an aspect neglected in much contemporary Canadian poetry. Thus, in “Trail closed for winter,” we are warned to: Avoid the seeping, glossy, the thaw-busy. Blue flow stitched and flickering in floe, like minnow or stretch-marks Another is the accuracy of her visual detail. In the first poem, “Camber Sands,” speaking of her father’s photography, she writes “He taught me to observe,” something she illustrates in “Inside the cornfield,” where she evokes “bundled rows of blond bead-hybrid / of mouth organ and abacus.” Sometimes, as in “Bones,” it seems simply a matter of giving free rein to a fertile imagination that sees: Bone as fence, bone as instrument. Eye sockets large as satellite dishes knuckle the Toronto sky, solid frill around the collar-stone Tudor ruff or petals on an anemone.

While the same effervescent visual awareness informs her poems about Degas and Modigliani, in “Paint Box” she consciously links the two arts: Painting grows out of poetry. as green will fork from a tree and the adult emerge from the child —though our eyes remain the same. As the range of themes and subject matter makes clear, she has lost none of her omnivorous curiosity. What is different, for me at least, is that these poems seem to be linked less by theme or setting than by a pervasive mood, mostly an off-season, autumnal, or wintry one, and they are suffused with uncertainty. Pearson’s often bleak English landscapes, such as “Whitby in the rain,” are matched by poignant poems, such as “Driving Instructions” and “Stroke,” that focus on her mother’s stroke. But maybe I exaggerate, for even in “The Frieze,” one of a moving sequence of poems that deal with dyscalculia, the inability to understand numbers, her observations are tempered by a sense of playfulness, irreverence, and the incongruous, as evident in “The Hunter” where, going through her mother’s clothes, she discovers: Pie-crust collars, frilled sleeves — all blessed by Diana, Patron Saint of Wardrobe. A row of dusty handbags looks abashed and lopsided,as if they all had strokes. Pearson has a good ear too for sardonic overtones, as in these lines in “The Frieze” that evoke the number six: This one has a tummy pain and is sitting down. Perhaps it’s getting old or having a baby Or praying repentant and kneeling like Henry’s wives. Perhaps some of this quality she inherited from her mother, who is quoted as saying: You have to see the funny side. You have to keep dancing, keep leaping like the salmon, the deer, the lamb.

Miranda Pearson referencing her book The Fire Extinguisher (Oolichan Books, 2015) A visit with a female friend to Sylvia Plath’s grave results in a similar urge to vitalism in the injunction of its last line “Live, girls, live.” But then, eschewing the whimsical. Pearson is rarely less than bracingly tactile and direct, not least about the ordinary miracle of the human body, of which she asks “What of the held weight of a human lover, what of touch?” For, as she recognizes in “Alaskan Cruise,”  “we are all animals, basic and social.” At its most compelling, this determination to be true to the physical world blends with a kindred quality, a sense of appreciation and gratitude for things as they are, whether, as in “Visiting our grandparents,” it is a glimpse of mediaeval sculpture or the sense Pearson evokes in “Bowl” of total involvement in the creation of pottery: We forget our bodies, forget gender —Though craft’s a feminine, subordinate termfor this involved physicality and ritual. Clay forgives but has its own soft memoryand when you handle it, it lives Like all good poets, Pearson draws attention not only to details, situations, or states of being we might otherwise have overlooked, but also makes valuable distinctions, sometimes just in passing, as in “silence not of regret/ but of listening.” But at a macro-level, as in “Alaskan Cruise,” her engaged mind neatly juxtaposes on the one hand the “eleven layers of romance” and the “ice porn” of melting glaciers, and points up the relationship between the glacier “that slumps in on itself/ a grieving in blue and white” and the “broken turquoise tiles of Istanbul,” so that we understand the over-arching significance of the final lines: “Fuel from the ship unravelling into the water, /a spooling thread/ casually inscribes/ a future.” Overall, whether dealing with intimate human relations or with the beloved natural world, Rail is a worthy addition to Pearson’s already impressive oeuvre.

-Christopher Levenson

Review by Brenda Schmidt

A one-word book title, the word both noun and verb and rich with various meanings, essentially waves a passing language lover down. Such titling of collections of poetry is not uncommon; indeed, it has become a poetic form in itself, a shaping form perhaps already aptly named and in the midst of being explored by academics for all I know. For those deeply steeped in the reading of poetry for the joy of experiencing a universe of thought, a title like Rail surely is the dark matter, a form whose mysteries we yearn to uncover. Looking through The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms to see if the one-word book title is included (it isn’t), I encountered again these words by Mark Strand: “A poem is a place where the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable, where to imagine is to feel what it is like to be.” Rail, abounding with mystery, is this most exquisite place. Coming to this work, my curiosity was further piqued by Miranda Pearson’s percipient review in Event magazine of my work, which identified philosophical frameworks and lineage. I too like to follow a writer’s thinking around, or try. Pearson’s work in Rail nods to and grows around the likes of ee cummings, John Bunyan, Mother Goose, William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and so on, down a wide-ranging page of Notes, the allusions and quotes elegant and integral to the poems. A Dickinsonian dash opens Pearson's six-stanza poem “Bowl,” and the shaping of a bowl on a pottery wheel begins, and so begins a feminist contemplation of politics, work, gender, and art, its circular depth and reach rising with each line, until in the fifth stanza the essence of hope is realized: Clay forgives but has its own soft memory and when you handle it, it lives. But what does it mean to be contained?  Pearson leaves us with this: It cannot be false. The finished bowl a nest for the thing with feathers.   The italicized words are by Emily Dickinson.

Not one thing feels false in Rail. The sensual texture is extraordinary throughout. In the long poem “Alaskan Cruise,” the shaping experience of place and time is considered (“The wake converged like train tracks — dazzling / as death. You’re the vanishing point”) and reshaped considerably by the workings of memory (“Never think of this place as static, / says the guide, through static“). In “The Hunter,” a familiar sight in many a closet here turns into an arresting image:  A row of dusty handbags looks abashed and lopsided, as if they all had strokes. Three poems later in “Stroke,” the speaker’s “Mum” is without speech, trying to play Scrabble and struggling with words. “Put the letters away in their soft bag” goes the final line of the last three-line stanza of this six-stanza poem, the “soft” hearkening back to the clay, the bowl, the unnamed hope. Grounded and resonant, Rail is as political as it is personal, as old world as it is new, its subtlety enviable and stirring. In “Marine Drive” Pearson says it best: “A beautiful shape is its own consolation.”

-Brenda Schmidt

"Miranda Pearson explores the deep fabric of our lives, of motherhood and daughterhood and friendships, the pull of away and the call of home. She has an excellent ear; her vivacious poems abound with original imagery; they are crisp, attentive, neatly judged. Here is a woman's voice at the top of her talent."

-Kathleen Jamie, author of Sightlines and The Overhaul

Other Public Readings of Rail

October 25, 2019

- McNally Robinson Books, Saskatoon, with Jacqueline Turner (Flourish)

November 20, 2019

- Munro's Books,Victoria with John Barton, (We Are Not Avators) and David Eso (Post-Glacial, the Poetry of Robert Kroetsch)

March 1, 2020

- Torriano Meeting House, London, UK with Hannah Lowe

March 6, 2020

- StAnza, Scotland's International Poetry Festival, St Andrews, UK