Prairie Fire Review - Running in Darkness
Prairie Fire Review of Books
Reviewed by: Gillian Harding-Russell
In Running in Darkness, Robert Currie maps his own beginnings from his conception in Furness, Saskatchewan during the Depression, through various childhood memories, including those so beautifully choreographed and encapsulated in the title poem 'Running.' Here the speaker as a schoolboy is pictured running through the darkened school yard and through time, itself, while he races towards maturity and his eventual retirement in 'What We Leave Behind.'
A people's poet, Currie demonstrates a flair for the anecdotal and humorous, for ironies that surface within and between the lines. Recently instated as poet laureate of Saskatchewan, Currie has way of expressing what he sees around him in warmly human terms, no matter what the subject matter.
In 'One Winter Night,' Currie recreates the frigid scene of his begetting. Down to the meagre and precise dimensions of the bed, this harsh scene during the Depression remains a grim one: In the shack the elevator agent huddles against his wife on a thirty-nine-inch bed, frost clinging to its metal frame. Curled beneath Hudson's Bay blankets, he wraps her in his arms, listens to a thrumming sheet of tin. (1)As the elevator agent comforts his wife that 'it will get better,' and 'there'll be grain to buy, next fall,' a dramatic irony arises since the reader, with knowledge of history on his/her side, is well aware that things will not get better until sometime later. Starkly realistic as the subject matter in 'One Winter Night' remains, Currie's treatment is softened by his portrayal of his father's love for his mother and by his hopefulness (however misplaced), as well as by the incident's distance in time.
The anecdotal 'Everyone Knew,' about a young girl's sexual abuse by her father, presents the facts and allows what is abhorrent to be inferred. Here the speaker describes how, as a schoolboy, he erased all the 'smudges like bruises' from his used schoolbooks to sell to the girl, Annie, in the grade beneath him, 'for less than they'd bring / from any other kid on the block': 'As if somehow that would satisfy her father / and keep him from his daughter's bed.' (16) After the image of the 'bruise' in association with the pencil marks he erases so diligently from his schoolbooks, these last lines come as less than a surprise. More gruesome details surface in 'Uncle Andrew,' in which the speaker describes his experience of being babysat by an alcoholic and abusive uncle. While the child watches with amusement how his uncle's 'lips opened and folded/ around the bottle he pulled from a own paper bag,' he becomes defensive and then aggressive: He set his bottle down and leaned toward me, the slap like a two-by-four against my cheek. I started to cry and ran for the bedroom. 'Stay there,' he said, 'or I'll cut off your cock.' (13 )When the violence takes place between the lines and through ellipses, its effect has the power of understatement. Far from the softening effect of distancing in 'One Winter Night,' in which the pain is glossed over even as it is muted in irony, the fact that the child is struck across the cheek awakens the reader's outrage with the physical act. With something of Dylan Thomas's evocation of childhood's fleeting beauty in 'Fern Hill,' the speaker in the title poem, 'Running,' in the space of a few verses choreographs his journey through boyhood pranks towards maturity and old age. Once 'lathe lean except / for shoulder blades, ankle bones, knees / like knobs beneath the skin,' the speaker recalls how he could run from the 'boys' door's at school to first plate even though, as he modestly adds, he was less good at batting: One time my friends and I ran in darkness, the school yard charmed, ran because we'd rung the bell on Mr. Keenan's door, and he could run too, but in the shelter of the night he was not as fleet, the base lines lost in shadow, the ground so low it couldn't reach my feet which flew so fast I knew for sure at any second I would simply disappear. (99) Shifting from the literal scene of running away from the dreaded Mr. Keenan to the metaphoric, the speaker in the enjambed next stanza suggests how time flies while he finds that he has 'disappear[ed]' and 'someone much like [him]' is sitting 'solid' on his daughter's couch with his grandson on his lap.
Again, time's passage in association with the deserted schoolyard comes up in 'What We Leave Behind.' Examining a sepia photograph of the Central Collegiate Football team circa 1917, the speaker recalls his own youth when he learned to 'rush a quarterback' on the same field. The speaker also recollects how the principal, Mr. Ballard, 'nailed' him with detention for working out off-limits during the lunch hour. 'Broader' than the bureaucratic principal's shoulders, the school still stands, and considering a more recent displacement in time, the speaker recalls his own years as a teacher, when he frequented the building. Although he taught more than three thousand students, 'brilliant and perverse, friendly, troubled, oh so very human,' while their lives merged 'for a season in the shimmer of their youth,' 'today not a single student knows [his] voice, [his] face.' What greater strength and modesty than those elicited by the speaker in a few lines? Always keeping in the reader's eye the image of the deserted schoolyard with the deserted swing-set on the cover, Running in Darkness is a wonderfully rich collection of poems written at the poet's prime and with a warmth of experience that is often disarming.
Gillian Harding-Russell lives in Regina. She has written two collections of poetry, Candles in my head (Ekstasis, 2001) and Vertigo (River Books, 2004).