The Intelligence of Animals
by Pamela Porter

The Backwaters Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9816936-4-4.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 02/09/2009


In Pamela Porter's poems, apples are hearts, pines have tails, a horse's mane is a tide and a raven has a hieroglyphic eye. These and other metaphors offer homage to nature and the everyday. This new collection of poems could be called "The Grief of Animals," for grief among her beloved familiars is something of which Porter is very much aware.

Hauling feed to the horses in "An Ordinary Morning" is an image that stays with me in its ordinariness, its physicality, its drudgery mixed with artistry. I think of my own days on the farm and wonder if the men and women lugging the feed had poems in their heads and hearts. If I could just remember their words, their ordinary observations, I would know they did.

My favourite of the poems in the collection is "Ordinariness," which is about making tea, taking a walk, mending, washing. It's beautiful in its simplicity and reverence for ordinary things. The epigraph to the poem, by a Warsaw ghetto survivor, reminds the reader that the survivor and others who are imprisoned, grieve "the loss of common things." The poet reminds us that when we hear the "black beating of wings," it is the wings of birds we hear and not something else much more terrifying.

Among the tributes to horses which are part of the poet's daily life are poems as memorials to poet Emily Dickinson; artists Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O'Keeffe; and Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Poets and those who care for horses live away from the mainstream, as did these visionaries who inspired Porter: Dickinson in her Amherst room, Van Gogh in the Saint-Remy asylum, O'Keeffe at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. The ghosts of animals also make their way into Porter's poems as well as "the angel of dogs."

A "gorgeous museum-issued book on Van Gogh" inspired Porter's seven poems about the artist. His art, as well as excerpts from Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo, helped to give Porter a new understanding of the artist who, she writes, had "a clear obsession for yellows." Reproductions of Van Gogh's art, the sunflowers and the yellow room, are so popular that I couldn't help but see them as I read Porter's poems. She gives enlivening words to the remembered images and illuminates them with a new freshness, and respect.

The works of Thomas Merton, including his books of photographs, were accessible to Porter when she spent a day a week writing in the library at Queenswood House, a retreat center run by the Sisters of St. Ann in Victoria, British Columbia. "From studying his photographs," Porter says, "it would seem that for him, photography was also a kind of poetry." She wrote poems in which she explored Merton's final journey, through his photography. Merton was interested in eastern spiritual thought (he died in Thailand) and it seemed natural at times for Porter to write some of her poems as haikus. The dialogue she has created is a sort of call and answer, using a photograph of Merton with Georgia O'Keeffe, for instance, with reflections on the meeting and Merton's own words from his journal. These ghostly visits are fascinating, rather like the living animals who don't have voices (not with words as we know them, anyway) and visionaries who offer insight from another plane. I say "call and response" because as the poet observes every detail of the photograph and her intuition and imagination come alive, the words of Merton float by her listening heart to give her the sound and scent of "fresh wind, song of an ordinary robin in the low gnarled cedars..."

I felt a great silence in these poems. You can see it in the space around the poems and know that the poet's inspiration has been honed in silence, as was the case for the artists and monk who inspired her. Poetry can transport us as well as keep us here. Pamela Porter has created that magic in this splendid collection of poems.

Pamela Porter was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and earned an MFA from the University of Montana. Her first volume of poetry, Stones Call Out, was published by Coteau Books (Canada). Her novel in narrative poems, The Crazy Man, won a dozen awards, including the Canadian Governor General's Award, the Texas Institute of Letters young adult book award, and was named a Jane Addams Foundation Honor Book. Porter lives on Vancouver Island, British Columba with her husband, two children and a menagerie of rescued horses, dogs and cats.

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