Richard Vallance.


October 2001's review is of the contemporary American poet Robert Lyle Temple's visceral North American sonnet, White Water.



ABOUT ROBERT LYLE TEMPLE

Robert Lyle Temple became aware of the poems waiting for him to write twenty years ago, at the age of 53, after ignoring them all since he was sixteen and had finished his seventy-five sonnet series. He has joined many poetry groups, been moderator, judge, publisher, presenter, and other official types and typist for those groups that print a booklet.

Ten years ago he finished his career of high school teaching but continues his career as husband, father and grandfather.

He now resides in Saint Paul, Minnesota and Tucson, Arizona.



THE REVIEW...


WHITE WATER
a Namakagon runaway canoe

racked up on rocks. A boy, then twelve years old

a boyscout, did no more than he was told

(Kid, get that paddle?) stepped in churning blue

--the speaker teasing had not thought he'd do

the act--the boy was swept off thrown and rolled

came home with such a story to unfold:

words phrased as torrents he had tumbled through

he could not tell enough--a brownish grey

and metal-flavored memory would stay

to bruise -- years on -- a normal afternoon --

seen not unlike a distant half-heard tune

not recognizable but flowing still

as sung by his own ghost against his will.


Robert Lyle Temple, 2001

Written by a fellow, who is obviously a highly adept wilderness canoeist, this remarkably vivid, vicariously nerve-wracking sonnet, strikes right at the heart of what it's like to have to run rapids as rough as R4 or R5! I myself know perfectly well, from personal experience, that's not just rough. It's downright harrowing!

Of course, this sonnet achieves its most powerful effects, firstly via its rhythm, in partially "sprung" or "tripped" metre (in the manner of Gerard Manley- Hopkins), or where it is iambic, it fairly sparkles.

Secondly, the poet reinforces his jagged metre, through all its unexpected and often torturous twists, with an equally dashing alliterative style. The very first verse of the sonnet hits hard, with its unrelenting series of a's:

a Namakagon runaway canoe

- in which he embeds the sharp Chippewa word, Namakagon, a strange sound to the ears of most "shanagash" ("ghosts" or white men). Namakagon is a lake located in the Chequamegon National Forest in northern Wisconsin, due west of Michigan and due south of Lake Superior.

Now, in case you are wondering whether Robert's poem catches the spirit of this deep and mysterious wilderness, here is its description: rolling terrain dotted with crystalline lakes, meandering streams and headlong rivers, with plenty of rock formations, cliff-lined gorges and 20 metre waterfalls set against highlands hundreds of wildlife species and hundreds of kilometres of hiking, some of it rugged.

Now, when Robert ran one of those nasty ole' rapids, he was only only 12 years. His sonnet makes it abundantly clear that he can never forget what a harrowing experience that was!

His pounding metre grabs us with the awesome and aweful adrenalin rush of running rapids! Coincidentally, I myself ended up running almost identical rapids with three of my friends in two canoes, on the Chapleau- Nemegosenda Arctic Watershed run in Northern Ontario, in the summer of 1993. There, at the terminus of an almost kilometre long mad dash through churning waters and scads of boulders and rocks, we ran smack dab into the twisted wreckage of a tough Grumman aluminum canoe. It had been cut to ribbons.

Robert's stereophonic, wide-screen cinematic "description" fits to a tee, especially the blood-curdling line(s):


...                  a brownish grey
and metal-flavored memory would stay
AND again -

as sung by his own ghost against his will

My own friends and I were all wondering precisely the same thing as were Robert and his tripper colleagues, when we spied the wreckage. Just who had died here, and how had violence been done? How had Nature wrought this all-too real destruction?

Make no mistake about it. We are not talking of a "cruel" Nature versus Romantic Nature here. This is not an European poem in any way whatsoever. What we are faced with here is a uniquely North American phenomenon: an American sonnet, a wildlife poem. It could not have been written elsewhere than in Canada or the U.S.A.

No perspective on Nature, as envisioned by any European poets, whether they be the Wordsworths and Keats of Romantic Nature, or the Matthew Arnolds and Mathilde Blinds of cruel Nature, could have conceived a poem like this. That would be akin to expecting the French to have understood the paintings of Winslow Homer, himself an impressionist of the highest order. Of course, in his day, many of them did not.

Finally, this poem is all the more remarkable as much for what it leaves unsaid as for what it so starkly portrays. Robert draws a sharp contrast between what appears, by all accounts, to be a "normal afternoon", summery, warm, mostly sunny, with a pleasant breeze swathing the canoeists' cheeks and lulling them almost into complacency, and the sudden torrent of "words" the canoeists yell in vain over the onrushingrapids. That remarkable poetic utterance, "words phrased as torrents" is transparent litotes. That's what really smacks me in the face, just as the headlong howling waters of those rapids did! The rapids hit Robert. And they hit us. Do I ever relate to this sonnet!

But what strikes me as most ironic about Robert's sonnet is his phraseology, especially this coinage:

as sung by his own ghost against his will.
That experience adds up to far, far more than words, making a mockery of mere memories. Robert has relived and continues to relive (both in his dreams and in his waking state and in the actual composition of this piece) the horror he has to face over and over again, from running those treacherous rapids. He is almost literally "beside himself", reliving the terror. But terror such as this is not some trifle to regret; nor is it something to run away from, as one might from one's own past. It is an ongoing real-life confrontation, which the poet, a true-blue canoeist, cannot evade, period, any more than anyone can have escaped the memory of losing a friend to a war.

Thus, it is to be sincerely hoped that Robert's own headlong encounter with all-too Natural death aids you, his reader, in vicariously reliving that horrific accident, as though you yourself had experienced it. Can't you taste it in your mouth?

- taste that rusted metallic wreck?

and metal-flavored memory would stay

to bruise -- years on -- a normal afternoon --

Haven't you seen for yourself that grim, telltale evidence of the deaths of those canoeists who here met their fate?

It's a funny thing, you know. On yet another canoe trip, my friends and I ran across a prominent crucifix of metal and wood, hammered into the ground, amidst many stones, on a minuscule island near the eastern shore of a large lake in la Réserve la Verendrye, in Québec, just after we had ourselves run similar rapids.

Spooky stuff, eh?

So, if you've never gone wilderness canoeing yourself, what are you waiting for?

If you live in England and you can afford to come on over to Canada, we have wilderness galore, beautiful pristine lakes with strange Amerindian names and pictographs, meandering rivers and mosquito infested swamps; and many swift and dangerous rapids to keep your adrenalin rushing.

I for one am sure that Robert's imagery, born of and turned back onto and into its own reality, has brilliantly conveyed the sense of urgency that pounds like blood through such arterial experiences.

"Seek and ye shall find" many, many more North American poems of this nature (pardon the pun!).

On one last note, may I remind you that the unique cachet of North American Amerindian and/or wilderness poems finds itself mirrored in the poetry of other "English-speaking" nations, such as Australia, with her aboriginal poetry, and New Zealand, with her Maori heritage.

In a nutshell, what is "English" poetry, anyway?

Or, to put a fine point to it, what is poetry, in any language?

"La poésie de la France, est-elle pareille celle du Québec?"

Is the poetry of France that of Québec?"

Or is Québec Amerindian and wilderness poetry more akin to English Canadian and American poetry of the same genre?

© by Richard Vallance,
October 2001 for Poetry Life and Times.

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