Tuesday, May 15, 2012



An Open Door in the Landscape by Elisabeth Harvor
(Palimpsest Press, Kingsville, Ontario, 2010)

In her third collection of poetry, Canadian author Elisabeth Harvor excavates the emotional terrain of the past with an unblinking eye. Based on personal memories and historical incidents, her poems transform real and imagined events into vivid sensory experiences replete with intensity.   

Harvor's poetry has garnered much national recognition over the years. She received the Gerald Lampert Award in 1992, the Alden Nowlan Prize in 2000 and the Marion Engel Award in 2003.   In 2011,  An Open Door in the Landscape was nominated for the City of Ottawa Book Prize and the ReLit Award.     

Much of this collection focuses on Harvor's youth; she grew up as the daughter of potters who worked at home. Accordingly, the poem "Blowtorch Alchemy" conveys her childhood fascination with the firing process of the kiln that she and her siblings can hear below their bedrooms. Another poem, "This is our Life" offers an impressionistic glimpse of their family home with its "windmill and potter's wheel,/ kiln pit and lightning rods,/ staggered views of the river." "Glassy Archives of River" portrays a scene from Harvor's memory of the sunroom where they ate breakfasts of "porridge islands rising/ in deltas of syrup."

Several poems are inspired by Harvor's memories of her upbringing in the Maritimes. "As If We Can't Breathe There" alludes to the dangers of water unbeknownst to children when they make their way "through the yellowed forest of the drowned." In "The Ocean is After Us,"  Harvor evokes the joie de vivre of boys and girls frolicking on the beach and their astonishment at what they find there.     

            "the kelp lies in shining surrender
            down on the rocks,

            slippery ribbons, half-bitten
            into mutilated tassels
            of warted moons"

Some of the poems are purposely structured as narratives. The ironically-titled "In the City I Will Be Free, I Will Do As I Please" captures Harvor's sense of guilt and self-consciousness as a teenage boarder in the city for the first time. Embarrassed about wearing a made over outfit, she sneaks into the closet of the host's daughter, slips into one of her dresses and inadvertently rips it.  "A Voodoo Girl from the Planet of Never" delineates Harvor's experience of working at a summer camp for disabled adolescents. Only slightly older than the campers, she struggles to overcome the dread, fear and shame she feels while offering assistance. Written in the voice of a nurse, "Burning Hammock, 1917" is a chilling account of an accidental fire in a hospital overflowing with wounded soldiers. Harvor's previous training as a nurse informs the poem as does a series of taped memories of World War I veterans who served in the Canadian Medical Corps.   

Throughout the collection, Harvor demonstrates her ability to create arresting visual images. A prime example is her description of a jack-in-the-pulpit plant in "Sunlight Falls."  

            "its pulpit hollowed out
            a doorway: entrance
            into the streamlined
            black mosque
            of the petal."

In "Time or Lightning" the narrator compares the actions of city workers and tree inspectors to those of doctors.

            "how they arrive in their
            yellow trucks to minister medically
            to the trees' bunions, its ossified

            its abrasions, its circular bits"

Undoubtedly, the poems in this collection attest to Harvor's keen interest in the past; much like an archaeologist, she strives to reconstruct it with diligence, clarity and passion.      

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Canadian poet, fiction writer and critic. Her poems have been published in several journals, including Diviners and The Female Grotesque; they have also appeared in the exhibit "Visual Poetry II, on the website "Show Me the Poetry" and on transit buses. Bev writes about books for The Winnipeg Free Press and Prairie Books NOW. One of her short stories is forthcoming in the literary journal Prairie Fire. 

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