The Eleventh Hour
Carolyn Marie Souaid
Ekstasis Editions, 2021
Both the title of Carolyn Marie Souaid’s latest collection of poetry and the book’s cover graphic—the former warning that time has all but run out, the latter depicting a burnt orange moon overhanging shadowy, monolithic industrial buildings—threaten the reader with a premonitory, possibly dispiriting literary experience. But next, on an introductory page, a quotation from Virginia Woolf goes some way to relieving the apprehensive reader by informing them that “Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.” Despite the fraught gloom of these times, conciliatory moments, surprises, happenings, are to be found. The poems in The Eleventh Hour unfold between these two assertions: one a bleak warning, the other a consoling assurance.
In line with this equivocal stance, the book’s contents are separated into sections headed by, and then, in the last instance, concluded by, an “Augury” composed of centos—brief poems made up of excerpts culled from other writers’ verse (Susan Gillis, Tim Lilburn, Stephanie Bolster). These prologues or hinges resemble gnomic divinations, and, particularly in their concluding lines, are characterized by ambivalence and disquiet: “See the circling hawk: there is longing here.” “It dawns on me that perhaps/you are not coming.” “It is possible that things will not get better.”
I am reminded of an apothegm my brother, given to practicing Zen austerities, once inked on his fridge door: “This year’s hunger is not real hunger. Next year’s hunger will be real hunger!” Or, as the fifth and final “Augury” in The Eleventh Hour concludes: “…as though / each thing on earth were / breath by breath, thought by thought / an incremental withdrawal.” Take heed and prepare yourself for less. Life—Souaid has been reviewing her existential accounts—involves sobering reappraisals, big letting-go’s, and inexorable losses.
The accumulated years bring intimations of mortality. These hints or revelations are present in a number of alarmed, tender poems about her father. From “Amplitude”:
Rare are my father’s complaints about pain,
the mottled bruise
up the back of his leg.
Lately, I’ve watched him lose his dignity.
“Come Home Your Father Fractured His Hip,” “It Could Have Been This Time,” and “Pre-Op Check List” are all pieces in which she movingly ponders the depressing decline of the frail octogenarian. But then, in “Timeline,” it turns out he has mileage in him yet:
He announces, By George, he’ll draw again…
Away he goes with his wooden cane
up the steps of the retirement home,
plastic bag with his sketchbook and a sandwich
bumping his knees.
Far from immune and being mugged by mutability is the poet herself. In “City Fountain/Remembrance Day,” she writes:
Age has settled in my joints and hips
slowed my pace,
which my girlish heart did not expect
in the make-out car with Crazy Mike who’d never die
no matter what
But, if I read the poem right, die Mike did. Youth’s illusions fade and frequently suffer comeuppances. Stripped of these illusions, we continue on, chastened and chin drooped, up the clock.
But, regarding a possible upside—”a match struck unexpectedly in the dark”—does living’s shocking subsidence—defined as a gradual sinking of the ground’s surface without sideways motion—bring insight, or wisdom (the sideways motion)?
After all, isn’t searching for and articulating that wisdom, as well as the comfort it offers, part of the job description of creative writers? Souaid, however, has her reservations about the claims of poets and observes: “How we embellish like the Great Romantics! / Forget that life does not exist / because of our telling but in spite of it” (“Meanwhile, North of the 60th”). In another piece, “Survivor,” she indirectly upbraids some writers for their posturing by modestly announcing that:
has a pair of lungs that do their best
…She hasn’t lived in an alley
or hit rock bottom or climbed her way
out of the bottle.
…Between dishes and bed, she types a word.
In her criticism of unwarranted literary claims and stances, Souaid paradoxically reaffirms poetry’s mission of truth-seeking and truth-telling, subjective and otherwise. The “upside” of her rejection is her stark clarity of vision. She does not spare herself from searing scrutiny. She speaks of her own possibly self-indulgent misery: “They sell special lamps, apparently, / for seasonal affective disorder, I should get one / and turn it on,” (“I Should Shut Up and Pour Myself Some Wine”). Likewise, while at a hotel in Canada’s North (Souaid has worked there often), overhearing the patronizing observations of southern visitors regarding the prevalent social ills, she reflects, “And if they—as they do—engender suspicion / then so must I / with my sealskin gearings and commissioned art” (“Meanwhile, North of the 60th”).
Souaid, then, is a truth teller. Her truth is sobering, but, as the quotation from Virginia Woolf intimates, also leavened by redemptory “little daily miracles” and “illuminations”. The poet has an eye for significant details, particularly those of middle-of-the-road, early-twenty-first-century domestic life—or what for some of us comprises actual, day-to-day experience.
For this task, her poetic voice is an excellent instrument. It is quiet, honest, self-disclosive, and persuasive. There is irony and humour in it, which curb any excessive earnestness. Maybe these techniques are what, in the end, allow access to, or even constitute, genuine wisdom. Both—especially the humour—also help relieve what might otherwise, as the cover and title seem to portend, might prove an unrelenting vision.
I don’t know what limits have been placed on me,
what acreage I’ve been given, the number
of near misses I get but I carry on,
fearing the worst…
A BMW sprays sludge against my windshield.
No point in honking or giving him the finger.
No point in speeding up.
Risking a one-way ticket to Paradise.
(From “I Should Shut Up and Pour Myself Some Wine”)
Souaid’s is a plainsong that captures the quotidian round. Idiomatic and declarative, it possesses a fitting prosiness that is never flat. At times, however—very seldomly—the tendency to end the line at a natural grammatical break, and rarely elsewhere, sacrifices the possibility of emphasis and suspense.
Her diction, not overly lit by images, is more than fitting: It can include and make extramundane almost any common object or action, for example: “A cyclist has stopped and removed his socks,” which I think is a fine, unpoetic poetic lick (“That One”).
Equally troubled by our times, the reader leaves The Eleventh Hour feeling they have had a memorable and moving heart-to-heart with a kindred soul.
Steve Luxton taught for many years in Concordia University’s Creative Writing program. Now retired, he lives in Hatley with his haiku poet wife, Angela Leuck. He has published six poetry books, most recently The Dying Meteorologist (DC Books, 2019). He also plays blues harmonica.