By Stephan Torre
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 ISBN 9-780889-777750
Effective poetry is difficult to write. That’s the bottomline, and it’s why I’m so excited about the polished and effectual work inside BC poet Stephan Torre’s Red Obsidian, a recent collection of “New and Selected Poems” (selected from Man Living on a Side Creek and Iron Fever). Perhaps it’s no small coincidence that this latest book was edited by Randy Lundy, who’s also published in the press’s Oksana Poetry & Poetics Book Series, and whose work I greatly admire: both writers construct poems that radiate with energy.
Torre’s poems straddle the contentious fence between industry and environmentalism. They’re filled with the vernacular of tree-felling and farming; of the beautiful, raw and disappearing landscapes he’s called home along the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the US; and with the birds, fish and animals he’s shared these wild rural and coastal locales with. He laments the capitalistic fervour that reduces shorelines to realtors’ signs, and though he’s lived mostly off-grid, he ponders his own part in it, ie: how he “drove deeper, and drove away/antelope and eagles from their spring nesting,/eager to rip up sage and greasewood, hack out a spread/like western books I’d read.” The powerful “Those Mornings, Big Sur” describes an idealistic – if naive - lifestyle, where “we climbed up through coyote bush/to raise our kids in a blaze of redtails” but in the next stanza he speaks of “factory ships flushing their bilges,/the old-growth forest piled high/on the barge decks” and “our dream coast hacked and hauled off for sushi/while folk music played/in our cabins, and we believed/our muddy roads would keep out the world.”
These poems are populated with saws, chains, oil, acid, dust, smoke, shadows, ruts and barbwire, but also reverence for trees and birds, like the raven who “hauls/morning’s smoky hide” and the marsh hawk “carving the hour.” There’s the gem of a raven “splitting the air with its sarcastic laugh/mocking the fever of our need.” Torre’s fine ear obliges us to hear the destruction of the land and resources, but he’s equally adept at conveying the other senses, too, ie: “Cool odour of crushed fruit, sawdust/like a blast of wheat/through my ribs;” “Our eyes burned like gasoline;” and “We could taste the river on our lips”.
This skilled poet utilizes a terrific variety of structures for his poems, including quatrains and tercets. When he writes in couplets his work occasionally resembles ghazals, ie: “Cattle scratch their lice under the eaves/until the grey house collapses.” Some poems cross several pages – like the veritable anti-greed anthem, “We Went Out to Make Hay” - while the shortest are merely five lines. Torre’s also included love poems, but don’t expect the Hallmark variety: for him, love is “tasting mountains/for the first time”.
These new and re-introduced poems are highly visual, political, and empathetic: “We went out to set chokers around the great spruce/while red squirrels yelled down/through the hail of cones”. Hail to the squirrels, the glaciers, “migrating tundra swans” and the “sweet and bitter berries” Torre effectively employs.
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