The StarPhoenix Review - The Tongues of Earth

Reviewed by: Bill Robertson

Precariousness of Life Examined


This excerpt is taken from a July 11th article written by Bill Robertson. For the full article, click here.


One time Saskatoon resident Mark Abley, who studied at the University of Saskatchewan and at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, returns with a new and selected collection of poems, The Tongues of Earth. And what are the tongues of earth? Well, for one thing, they form the last line in the last poem in this collection, a poem about the increasing loss of languages in a modernizing, homogenized world. Working backwards from there, we see Abley's keen interest in last bastions of civilizations being driven under by militarily superior powers. Poems such as the multi-part Gloria and Credo (from Asian Mass), Lhasa, 1950, Efenechtyd, Radnorshire, and the clever Goodsoil, entirely composed of Saskatchewan place names, many of them disappearing from the landscape, show how cultures and their languages can wither away, or be destroyed, and what we lose when they are gone.

But there are other tongues of earth, as well. In the lovely Mother and Son, Abley opens, "You are the voice in the kitchen singing," and closes, "I overhear your love song by the counter/and my small heart thumps assent." The poem ... Perlis, Chamba, Tannu Tuva ... is about a man looking through his childhood stamp album, marvelling again at tiny squares of paper with their strange, in many cases disappeared, place names, relics of colonial pasts, all of them tongues of his own and others' long gone life.

A Labrador Duck gives voice to a stuffed bird in a museum, looking out at the curious descendants of those who shot all of its kind, muttering, "you'll never know ... why we had so little/chance against you - and I'm not telling." A Wooden Alphabet opens, "My summer project is to learn the script/these withered twigs spell out against the air," while the poem Labrador tells of "the earliest-known ceremonial burial in all of North America" near L' Anse Amour, giving voice, or tongue, to that piece of earth people have passed by for centuries. While Currie turns to sonnets on occasion in his collection - and good ones they are, too. Never forced or laboured - Abley is the formalist of the pair, employing not only sonnets, but self-imposed structures, as in Into Thin Air, with its upside down pyramids, idiosyncratic rhyme schemes, as in K'tunaxa and the marvellous Expecting, and the variations on each stanza's first line in Kicking Down Mount Rundle. It is those readers' delight to realize they are in the thrall of a rhyme scheme they hadn't noticed at first. Both collections provide readers with delight and emotional and intellectual challenge in equal measure.


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