by Kateri Lanthier
Signal Editions, 2017.
“I sing these songs all through the dark, after everyone’s left.” The myth of the sirens has been used throughout history, to shame women or empower them, but always to warn men—women too can be dangerous. Their songs shipwrecked men, or lulled them into a vulnerable sleep, in some myths the sirens were even sent to find Persephone who had disappeared into the underworld. Kateri Lanthier’s second collection Siren, is as many-layered and multi-faceted as the myth of the sirens. She reclaims the sirens for herself by acknowledging the power of her own voice. Her songs are both a comfort to herself in a time of lost love, a “morning…” or rather mourning “roar,” even at times a “laugh track,” and a lament. As songs of desire or frustrated love, Lanthier’s poems chime, ricochet, ring, and they definitely scream.
They are a heartfelt cry after the shipwreck, “after everyone’s left,” but what remains on the page is a restless and fearless engagement with the world:
Peonies. Their blowsiness defines “unfairly beautiful.”
What frightens me is baby’s breath in hospital gift shops.
Saplings shocked pink by a cold snap are pleased and scared pubescents.
My friends are walking backlit past a burn-victim birch.
Cold and wet, March lion mewls all night under the front porch.
Cradling newborn leaves, every maple’s a weeping willow.
Costly scent, cheap sentiment. You’ll pay and pay and pay.
We pay, by being forgotten as this poem, “Florillegal” ends with a play on the phrase “Ne m’oubliez pas,“ which means—don’t forget me. But the desire in this poem is already “bottled,” the willow is weeping, and the image of baby’s breath lingers ominously over the couplets. What is lost cannot be forgotten or forgiven. This poem, a ghazal, like the majority of the poems in the collection, also hints at how to view these poems, “I’ve a bird-eye view of a squirrel’s eye view of the tulips periscope,” these are highly self-aware poems that are continually shifting perspective.
These perspective shifts reveal an obsession with film, while various mentions of the big screen are made from early movie directors like George Méliès to stories unfolding on a movie screen, it’s the poem “The Year of La Jetée” that clarifies the intentions of the poet. The film La Jetée is unusual as it was created almost entirely out of still photos. This is how Lanthier’s eye moves throughout Siren, as if stilling the world through a series of polaroids and yet allowing it motion:
Love to me was cotton candy: spangle, collapse, tongue grit.
With you, it’s sadness scissored out. Lights on a suspension bridge.
Sport with me. I am the coin under the leftmost sliding cup.
Right, left, double-crossing…There. Now you’re in my pocket.
Cellphone, psalter, cigarette, gun: we like to set fire to our palms.
Rome burns as I photograph flowers or wear them as a bra.
Call it playing with fire. Call it connect-the-dots lightening.
In this poem, “The Coin Under the Leftmost Sliding Cup” as in many of the poems in Siren, love is unreliable, fleeting, even false; it drifts and disappears, it betrays and so engagements are broken, but what remains is desire. Lanthier’s frenetic pace rarely slows, and because of that her poems continually gain in urgency; a “siren” also audibly signifies an emergency, and here both firetruck and ambulance are needed. One woman’s world is on fire, is breaking, and yet this arrow-wounded speaker is never without agency. She might be “the figurehead fallen from your tall ship,“ but she has risen from the waters to tell her story.
Lanthier opens her collection with an epigraph from Ghalib translated by Adrienne Rich, “I am the sound, simply, of my own breaking.” A poet once told me that breakage allowed light to shine through, and Lanthier’s poems are full of this after-light. They are quippy, ironic, passionate, musical, even at times funny, they surprise and delight and transform sorrow into something… dare I say it—entertaining. Which perhaps isn’t surprising given Lanthier’s interest in film:
This theater has 200 lolling tongues.
We perch on two. Light closes her eyes.
The dark yawns at the pregnant pause.
Then there is our story up on the screen:
Meet-cute, then heist, dystopia,
Rom-com, subtitled documentary,
A Bollywood epic, the last Western.
In Siren, Lanthier acts as director, cinematographer, composer, and screen-writer, to create a style all her own. Though Lanthier pulls from Persian tradition of the ghazal (a form a century older than the sonnet and often steeped in love and eroticism), as well as uses syllabics and other prosodic elements to her advantage, though she references mythology and at times even Canadian history, and though she at times echoes Shakespeare, her poems are nevertheless saturated with the present. They exist in a world of texting and livestreaming, and are obsessed with the screen, both big and small.
And so my recommendation is: to sit back, relax, and read the poems of Siren aloud. Imagine you are strapped to the mast of a ship—like Odysseus listening to the sirens’ song, like Turner watching a storm, knowing you too might be shipwrecked.
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