George Murray; $18.95 paper
978-1-77041-087-9, 64 pp., 51/2 x 81/2,
ECW Press, April
Reviewed from bound galleys
George Murray kicks off his fifth book of poetry with “Dante’s Shepherd,” which revisits Canto XXIV, 115 of the Inferno and, in so doing, reveals not only his subject matter but also his formal approach in many of the poems that follow. Like Dante’s master-piece, Whiteout is an exploration of the soul’s journey, and Murray employs terza rima in several poems. The effective use of rhyme testifies to Murray’s mastery of language within strict formal constraints.
The simplicity of “Dante’s Shepherd” belies its depth. A person walks with one hand exposed to the cold, and the sun finally comes out: “It leans down on the hills as though scorning / any doubt that the universe still lives / without my happiness in bloom, warning”. The common activity of walking while being assaulted by the elements points to one of the volume’s pervading themes: the destabilizing effect of being alive.
There’s also death. The eight tercets of “Brushfires,” another poem in terza rima, describe the aftermath of a fire and what is found in the rubble: a couple burned into one indistinguishable mess. “Falling or burning, embraced against the end; / what-was-once-two closes in, supplicates, smoulders down to one corpse, crumbles, ascends.” Several poems deal with accidents, emergencies, or death, and the overall outlook is solemn.
The shorter poems work best, with the ones that make use of rhyme being particularly effective. Fortunately Murray doesn’t force this approach, allowing half-rhymes to stand (or even forgoing them altogether) in the interest of communication. In “Innocent Bystanders,” for example, the speaker and his or her dinner companion listen in on another couple’s argument. Murray switches up the rhyme scheme partway through as the speaker and companion try to focus on each other. Such attention to sound combined with content is a pleasure.
On occasion, Murray’s language is unnecessarily raw, demanding too much attention and detracting from the overall effect. But in most cases, the diction fits beautifully. Filled with allusion, euphony, and thoughtful content, Whiteout is well worth consideration.
Candace Fertile, an English teacher at Camosun College, Victoria.