Laurie Kruk is too good a writer for her work to be read and evaluated merely as “women’s poetry,” “mother poetry,” “feminist poetry,” or whatever ghettoizing label might be deployed to foreground thematics and downplay poetics. Nearly every poem in her 2012 collection My Mother Did Not Tell Stories contains at least one turn of phrase that is truly stunning in its simple perfection; in particular, Kruk specializes in final lines with an unexpected grace and ineffable power. Finishing even her most mundane verses can be like ascending into the clouds after slogging along in the mud, as though some divine voice were capturing the essence of everything that went before and wrapping the reader in the same numinous embrace. Kruk can write with a transporting fluidity, yet often she burdens her poems with so much detail, so many words, that it’s difficult to find a thread of imagery or feel a sense of balance.
Kruk, a Canadian professor of English, shapes this collection of personal poems with historical narrative and geographical exploration, giving it an appealing reach. Almost all the poems, whether about a lost tooth (“Reliquary”), a flood (“After-Earth: second spring”) or an elevator (“Weight Time”), straddle worlds. On the stylistic level, however, it is disappointing when Kruk’s inner academic asserts itself, reveling a bit too obviously in the complex web that she is weaving (as in “Made in China”) or tearing the reader away from the poem with an explanatory footnote. Perhaps it is the academic, too, that insists on calling a bird feeder a “seed reservoir,” hotdogs “bundles of compressed meat” and a rabbit a “formerly sun-drowsy lagomorph.” These appellations do not contribute to the poems’ metaphorical structures, nor do they necessarily suit the poems’ overall tone; rather, they present obstacles that hold readers at a distance and restrain us from immersion in art.
Much of the time, however, Kruk’s writing seems untroubled by such obstacles; her poems fulfill their purpose simply by telling a story (as in “Chuba” and “What She Did for It”), a story that is not always pretty. Kruk is willing to put the plain ugliness of daily life—in the city or the remote Ontario wilderness, in this age or ages past—before us in flat, coarse, prosaic terms that grate against the ear. Clearly, the grating is often intentional, but that makes it no less frustrating when the poet is capable of transcendence. Kruk tends to present commercial distractions, technological excesses and cultural clutter in a litany of tackiness from which I longed to escape. There are too many digital toys, too much kitsch, too much garbage in these poems, and too frequently Kruk resorts to language that assaults the reader with its crass inelegance. No doubt Kruk intends to emphasize the crassness of our lives; “roller blades,” “mini-ipods” and a “printed-on-tuxedo tee” seem unworthy of poetry, but there they are. And sometimes the ways in which Kruk juxtaposes the sublime and the revoltingly worldly work to elegant effect. “Pierced” is a good example; it begins,
Lucky thirteen, her gift: vanity’s wounding,
this willing supplication
at the mall
Here, Kruk tidily captures the hallowed ceremony of a banal event, the personal gravity still felt in a tired cliché of modern suburban adolescence. “Scratching Tree” strikes a similarly effective contrast. Its charming opening, in which nurturing a child appears both elemental and magical, runs bluntly up against the utterly unmagical reality of life with a teenager:
First, you are Mama Bear:
nursing and holding
in the dark den of early motherhood
where you turn day into night, carry her
in the silvery-black, tracing the moon’s circle:
where she is you, inside-out.
A dozen years later
she is looking you in the eye, wearing
your shoes and taking your credit card.
As is evident, Kruk has a sense of humor, which sometimes carries a poem (such as “MAW!”), and sometimes sounds cheap and gimmicky, underscoring a poem’s failure to rise above its subject (as in “Blown Job,” the most consistently unpleasant piece in the collection).
Kruk is at her best in “Widowmaker,” my favorite of the poems. She describes a logging scene from a century past, then contrasts it with her own efforts to take down a tree on her property with her husband’s help. Yes, this poem includes the phrase “holy shit,” yet here, the contrast in tone between an epic past and the plain, profane present works beautifully. Kruk spins out a spare but increasingly profound vision of relationship between man and woman, drawn out of her descriptions of timber-felling now and then, and the result gave me goosebumps. The text swept me along with its rhythm until I wasn’t analyzing so much as feeling the multitude of her implied connections, and it brought me to rest on one of Kruk’s loveliest closing lines. The poem’s perfection is in its spare, pure precision, its responsiveness to itself—the way Kruk manages to get out of her own way, and ours, to let the poem happen and to let us experience it. The only blot on “Widowmaker” is the pedantic footnote, laying out a brief but entirely superfluous history of the Northern Ontario Railway. Even here, Kruk tells us too much, but this poem, this story, is worth reading nevertheless, as is the whole collection.