by Pamela Porter

Ronsdale Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-553-80106-1.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 05/23/2011


The photograph on the cover of Cathedral is a fitting image for Pamela Porter's soulful poems of praise to the vivid and exquisite details of day-to-day. It is a photo of aged hands posed as if in offering.

In the first poem in this beautifully crafted collection, "Photograph of Earth from Space," a poet's powerful eye sees a nine-year-old boy carrying an empty coffee can and a mango to a tree where he will sit with a missionary who shows him magazines. The scene takes place on the outskirts of Luanda, Angola where the young boy looks at a photograph of "Earth / floating in a dark sea / which Gerald imagines / is plenteous with fish." How wondrous is the pure simplicity of this poet's words to tell a story rich, yet with so few words.

Porter, and her husband Rob, travelling with their two children, worked in Angola and Ghana where Pamela taught English during the day. At night she and Rob rode in the back of a small pickup truck, delivering food to homeless children throughout the city of Luanda.

"Happiness in Ghana" begins: "The morning is a new egg." This exceptional line is full of the promise of a new day, the delight and warmth of an oval egg in the palm of one's hand, and the pleasure of breakfast. I stopped at that point and conjured up my own memory of a morning before reading about the roosters and lizards, "the scent / of pineapple and sewage."

This sensory description continues in the poem with the sandal seller and a parade of other bearers of items for sale, and the women, who balance "the day on their heads."

The poem "Luanda Street Children" begins: "Night in the shadow of the cathedral / gutted back in the seventies, / the week the Portuguese left Angola." While the cathedral may have been destroyed, there is an open-air cathedral in Porter's poem where her words pay homage to the beauty in the real, the raw and the dignity of the people.

The cycle of poems in Part II, "In the Cathedral of the Soul of the World: Suite Poetica for Guitar," was influenced and inspired by sound recordings, including Latin American Guitar Festival performed by Gerald Garcia. The cycle's title is from Porter's poem, "Caballito," in which she writes: "Until now I couldn't see it in myself: / the whole world contained in my own soul / that cracked teacup..." The grandmothers she refers to, who "look past their saucers / into the soul of the world...," are the women who make up the organization Grandmothers of the Disappeared. Caballito is a barrio of Buenos Aires.

When Porter was pregnant with their first child, she and her husband travelled to Nicaragua and Guatemala to document the experiences of ordinary people caught in the Contra war and the government-sponsored terror against Guatemalan teachers and aid workers. In "Message" is a memory of dining on cobblestones in Atitlan, Guatemala where the narrator's friend slips a barefooted boy a tortilla and leaves half her plate of food for an old woman. The narrator says: " my country / I had not learned how to take / just enough."

Porter's last poem, "To Will One Thing," after Kierkegaard, is a beauty in which the poet is probably at home with her horses on Vancouver Island. She recalls the "barefooted children" and "my abandoned villages." The poet narrator wants to become "a wild, gentle thing / with dark eyes / praying among the grasses." What a fitting way to end this collection of poems as prayers of paying attention.

Pamela Porter is the author of the Governor General's award-winning novel The Crazy Man, and two previous volumes of poetry: Stones Call Out, and The Intelligence of Animals. She earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Montana and has taught in universities and colleges in the United States and Canada. She lives with her husband, children and a menagerie of rescued animals on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

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