Afua Cooper Reviews Annick MacAskill’s Words That Are Grateful to be Alive
Murmurations, a book of poetry by Annick MacAskill, is about the flora and fauna of love, and the geographies of the heart. The poems conjure up roaring rivers, ecstatic waterfalls, the pounding waves of Nova Scotia’s Atlantic, the frozen lake of Ontario, the cry of the she-wolf lost in the Rockies and formations of birds high above Monet’s bridges. The natural world stands in for human lovers who are lost and then found again.
The poet is mistress of word economy. She deftly throws away lazy and sluggish words, and those that remain are lean, crisp and clean. So, each word, grateful to be alive, takes up the task of creation and becomes a universe in itself—layered, exacting and wondrous, and a world where opposites meet in joyous union.
MacAskill is a trickster. When we think she is talking about magpies, we realize she’s conversing more so about her love, her emptiness, her fear. In “Water Hunger,” the humble magpie is elevated to cosmic seer.
And who cannot fall in love with a poem like “Banff” with a mountain carved personally by the hand of God? “Ninth Floor” shows the poet at her trickiest and playful best. I smiled from ear to ear as I read this poem. “Ornithologists” teaches us the alphabet and vocabulary of birds. It is menacing, seductive and tentative at the same time.
Birds, with the exception of doves, are everywhere—hawks, herons, ravens and ducks. They are ravenous and craven, brave and brazen, shy and unshaven. In fact, the poet is bird obsessed. We are told that birds are messengers of the soul. If this is so, then MacAskill writes these poems as soul messages to bring us back to love. And by calling on the denizens of the sky, she shows us how to fall in love again and again.
Winter is also everywhere. Her love stories take place in winter: the beginning, middle and end, and in various topographies. Lake Ontario, Queen St. The Rocky Mountains, and the Canadian Prairies. Sometimes winter’s snow is pristine and playful, other times moody and brooding, sometimes cold, hungry and insolent.
But through it all, there is always love: fierce, bold, demanding and in perfect surrender. In the poems Eros narrates to us the beauty and joy of sex. Love and passion invoke prayers, as incanted in “Vespers.”
You are my midnight prayer, that dark-room hymn,
Know this: I’ve waited long enough to make certain demand—
Collapse the sky and run your body through my veins,
Taste what can be made of us,
The diverse Canadian landscape is a central motif in this collection. Yet the poems conjure up other temporal periods and geographic spaces. I read about falcons and I go to ancient Egypt, to the mythic story of Horus, the bravest and strongest of all falcons, but with the tender heart of a dove; the turbulent rivers, lakes and oceans sound a verse from the Psalms in my head: “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me”; and chattering birds presents themselves as the Hoopoe bird, the most sageful bird in history, special messenger to King Solomon. The wisdom of the Hoopoe bird is chronicled in the Quran through the love story of the bird-wise King Solomon and the original Queen of Gold Arms, Sheba.
Though MacAskill is kindred to Sue Goyette, Gwendolyn McEwen and Rosario Castellanos, she is her own woman poet. And she has found her voice. What a voice it is—tender, compassionate, inspiring, wise, warrior-strong and brilliant. This voice sings to us wedding songs worthy of the Shulamite’s love.
Murmurations is a joy to read and hear!
Dr. Afua Cooper is a multidisciplinary scholar and artist. Her 12 books range across such genres as history, poetry, fiction and children’s literature. Her latest book of poems and photographs by Wilfried Raussert is called Black Matters and is published Roseway. Dr. Cooper served as Poet Laureate of Halifax Regional Municipality for the term 2018-2020.