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Write On Ottawa: The Master of the apt and unexpected

By Rob Thomas on June 15, 2015


Ottawa poet N.W. Lea will be at Raw Sugar Cafe (692 Somerset St. W.) on Thursday, June 18 as part of the Chaudiere Books spring 2015 launch.  The event starts at 8 pm and also features the work of William Hawkins and an acoustic set by Jesse Patrick Ferguson.  (Ed: Hawkins will not be reading due to health reasons.  His work will be read by Cameron Anstee). 

Nick Drake is a lean and brooding figure.  He struggled with depression and died young.  Fans of the folksinger who encounter him in Understander might never forget how N.W. Lea likens him to a gorgeous crow eating rain. It is a curious image, both perfectly apt and completely unpredictable.  That’s quite a feat.  Writers love perfection almost as much as they love surprise. Our wrung out, over-exposed language rarely offers up both, not easily. And almost never in such a tidy little package:

 A Morning
where you just sit
and listen
to Nick Drake, sick—
watching the gorgeous crow
eat rain.

That’s a poem of 16 words. 18 if you count the title.  I am going to guess that Lea counts the title.  I would also guess — one of those wild ones —  that Lea is a ruthless editor of his own work.  He has a gift for perfectly tuned images, couched in spectacularly spare language.  Simplicity, balance, surprise.  Bang, bang, bang.  There is also wry humour.  Here’s an example from the self-reflexive poem called Ten Lines:

I close my eyes and see the prose.
I needed to take the edge off
and so now the edge is off.

Understander is dedicated to Lea’s mother with an epigraph that invites it to be read autobiographically.  It is divided into four sections.  The narrative isn’t explicit but is easily pieced together.  The Yard deals with memory and mourning.  Marigolds, for example, hold vigil on a yard: “The yard that grew me.”  Indiscipline is a series of second person addresses and third person descriptions of an absent woman.  Autumn Dogs is a series of more introspective lyrics that continue to play with surprise and language.  Raised By Wolves is a good example:

How clever we were
Chewing sunlight.
Chewing up night.
Possessed by humane demons.

The final section is called Present!  It is a single fragmentary piece or meditation, an assemblage of raw imagery, which Lea has likened to “weird little pieces of graffiti.”  Its tenor is calm and, obviously, immediate, an interesting (and quite satisfying) departure from the earlier poems, which are more self-contained, more emotionally unsettled, more retrospective.

To sum up: An interesting a voice, an interesting book.  Like watching a gorgeous crow eat rain . . . if that means anything to you.

Understander (2015) is published by Chaudiere Books and is being officially released this week.