Book: Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida

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Short Journey Upriver Toward Ōishida: Poems

Author: Roo Borson
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart

In Roo Borson’s new watershed collection, it is as though language were being taught to increase its powers of concentration, to hearken simultaneously to the fully impinged-upon senses, the reflecting mind with its griefs and yearnings, the heart with its burden of live memory. Always “the line bends as the river bends,” a quick ever-adjusting music that carries in its current those cherished, perishable, details of eye and ear, mid-life reflections on loss and home, the subtle shifts in season suddenly made strange and re-awakened. Recurrently, probingly, the line returns to the place of poetry in our lives. In the spirit of Basho’s famous journey to the far north, Borson’s “short journey” reminds us of the role of poetry in shaping and deepening our engagement with the world.


This collection, which won the 2004 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, includes meditative poems influenced by the masters of old Japan as well as three short essays: a reflection on the death of the poet’s mother (“Persimmons”), a memory of talking a young girl on a bridge out of suicide, and ruminations on a journey upriver taken by the Japanese poet, Basho, in the 1600s. Borson, like Basho before her, believes nature itself is poetry. The signal that Borson is a master of natural images appears early, when she states in the first poem (“Summer Grass”) that willows transform themselves into “dragons in leaf, draped scales.” A close engagement with the seasons marks the collection: a god turns over in its sleep “and so spring comes”; “against autumn’s enameled blue skies,” “the dye runs and it’s summer.”

The language is rich, filled with grace and delicacy, and refreshingly positive: the “banjo frogs,” the crickets ringing out “good house, good house,” “what shrivels the leaves still fattens the eels.” The poems reference numerous classical musicians: Bach, Beethoven, Hindemith, Chopin, Satie, and, indeed, the tone of the collection emanates the quiet, soothing qualities of the great composers. But as if to prove she is still part of this modern world, Borson can throw out a line striking in its contrast and modernity: “No one about (it’s Sunday), but an empty phone-box outside the Mobil station keeps ringing and ringing.” —Mark Frutkin

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