Serpentine Loop by Elee Kraljii Gardiner - Reviewed by Aaron Boothby
Anvil Press 2016 - $18.00
Begin with a favourite image, a remembered pleasure of recognition: Andy Goldsworthy looking out an airplane window in the film Rivers and Tides, taking in the serpentine forms of a river’s meander. “There are always these obsessive forms that you cannot get rid of,” he speaks in the voiceover. The moment imprinted on nerves years ago because in it a kindred kind of reading and noticing is expressed.
So much swings on the hinge of what is remembered without being often thought of. To encounter a book titled Serpentine Loop, icy - riverine forms drawn on the cover-becomes an event that twins other encounters with the serpentine. To open it and find an exploration of the form’s expressions in unexpected ways, both visually and sensually, in emotion and language, to say the shape of a poem deepens, taking on all these levels at once, becomes a singular experience in itself.
One thing precipitates another: “The map forms as we use it, etched / by the flow - not of water, / but what we do to each other,” writes Elee Kraljii Gardiner, in “Work of Rain.” Many of the book’s concerns are compacted in that line, but this could be said of many other lines. Repetitions are affirmed, practiced: to perfect the formal figure skating shape of a serpentine loop, from which the book takes its title, requires endless repetition towards precision.
In the interrelation between forms, what poems share with rivers and landscapes becomes apparent. These are ephemeral materializations briefly realized before mutation and erasure. Ice skating is locus and propulsion, motion of the book, linking intimacies and traumas together. Like poetry, it’s an act of inscription. Skates leave on the ice patterns expressed by blade and muscle. “The body written into the ice,” Krajii Gardiner writes in “Scribe.” A machine with an absurd name trundles out to erase what’s been written, the pond thaws, the river cracks. Inscriptions don’t last but rematerialize in nerves on reading or remembrance. Poems aren’t eternal either and there’s nothing wrong with that because it’s the most natural thing in the world. “That intangible thing that is here and then gone,” Goldsworthy says.
Singular brevities become eternal forms in play, in repetition. Serpentines are everywhere persistent. Look for them, one wants to say, expressed in river deltas or a snake surging through grass. We trace them idly with fingers on the skin of another body, our own, draw and dance them and so ice skating, that gorgeous and strange combination of drawing and dancing across a surface, whose physics requires curves, is composed of them. Look between the jumps, one wants to say. “It’s also one of the most pleasing, both as a pattern left on the ice and as a pattern of movement in the body as it is performed,” the poet writes in “Scribe,” a kind of introductory essay.
Mostly we cannot read the marks, but they are there and can be learned. The map is available even when difficult to decipher. Goldsworthy, again, after piecing together a sculpture composed of icicles cracked and reformed into a suspended serpentine framing stone, now illuminated by a rising sun: “all that effort going into making something that is effortless.” Someone skating on ice can turn the strain of a body’s muscle into the most effortless looking thing in the world. Find the soundless video from 1956 where the poet’s mother performs movements of stunning grace across the ice and look. Then read again.
The poems composing Serpentine Loop progress through the figure itself, which accompanies them as a drawing in various stages of completion. Push Off, it begins, the first foot placed and first movement of the Loop, the first line of the first poem: “The river sews itself into the city’s muscle.” The poem called “Insinu,” immediately tracing a line past the margin of its ending to become insinuate, sinuous with entanglements and implications. In sinew.
Ice itself becomes a character, not only a static surface where inscriptions are marked. It’s penetrable, unstable, subject to instant alteration when encountered outdoors, as the speaker does throughout childhood. She falls through ice for the first time in “Outdoors, Through,” finding by error that “there is a line, / an edge not safe to push.” The moment is an emotional marking of consciousness, another kind of inscription. She learns “what it is / to want to undo something, to uncrack the moment.” Ice can give way as suddenly as intimate barriers both loving and violent. In this case she is rescued; later, where is rescue to be found? The instance wraps subsequent encounters of lust, curiosity and physical harm in poems like “Trespass,” “Boundary for the Married,” and “Mercury Scud.” The terrain covered is expansive, traversing the extent of a life and the margins beyond it.
Memories, transmitted from parents and relatives, are filled with those who fell through and were not saved. An uncle Sylvester, “his cheeks ignited with pleasure of exerting the right / to live as his own man, maybe with a man,” skates up river and doesn’t return in “Falling Through.” Another relative, Silver (notice the resonance), “his body anchored by instruments of escape,” is only discovered after the thaw in “Ice is Thinnest Under a Bridge,” where, too, “we read surface through steel, / through spine and devise a silvered history of how / we treat each other.” What we do to each other. Looping, (“This looping of humanness,” the poem “Circle” offers), the line returns us to a current of intimate concerns because how we treat each other is never not an essential question.
“Boundary for the Married” introduces a sequence that addresses these concerns in remarkable ways. It begins with an electric fence, a blade of grass between fingers touched to the shock. There is so much explicit tenderness and curiosity in the act, “the thrum of this green blade as pleasurable / warning,” the approach to a line that will be painful to cross. Yet the grass is not enough, something calls for skin, and so, once touched, “How long you carry the imprint depends / on the intensity of the charge and your impulse to stay.” Duration, inscription, the form of a line transmitted to a surface as trauma.
In “Who You Are By What You Recognize,” completing the sequence, a cloud of words appears. Its edges take the curving serpentine forms; in the blankness between words those curves repeat, smaller. What’s formed is “a linguistic experiential map of two vocabulary streams.” The map forms as we use it. The words are terms from figure skating and those used by U.S. soldiers during “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” An unraveling intimate relationship, divide mapped by the two streams, becomes entangled in their mapping. It’s an experiment that asks the reader to look until patterns appear, recognition of self in the unfamiliar occurs. Some of the terms are easy to distinguish, like “Soldatova rule,” “mortaritaville,” but blur at “shotgun spin,” “grapevines.” How we treat each other maps how we speak to each other and the words we deploy in aid of or against each other. A water-divide marks which stream will take the rain that falls.
There are other things, of course, expanding concerns as the loop progresses into later life’s loss, differences, encounters. The longer poem “Supersedure” narrates in fragmented, lyrically fluid lines the swarming crush of bees suffocating their queen upon the arrival of a replacement, compacted into a gorgeous three word phrasing of “luscious vibration removal.” The harrowing and deeply moving “Aubade,” where the poison of chemotherapy twines with flowers chosen for disease resistance or “regenerated from samples 32,000 years old,” includes one of the most startling lines in the book: “Revival smells of darkness, not loam / but something scarcer.” “Final Flight” is a mourning poem for the 1961 air disaster which took the lives of the entire US Olympic ice skating team. “Grief is a scribe,” the poet writes there, another etching upon the body.
One’s faced with how many ways a form can mark itself upon nerves, upon the body. Language is one way, movement another, geographies, terrains, emotions yet others. The serpentine loop is practiced until the body remembers it without effort, until it is written there. This inscription repeats on the ice when the form is skated, as grief repeats within the body when agony is remembered. “I drifted away from skating but the language is imprinted in me. A tracing, a line extending beyond the margins,” the poet writes in “Scribe.” Beyond the boundaries of skating the language reappears in poetry, forms expressing themselves with different muscles. The page holds tracings the ice could not. Another phrase appears, remembered from the writer J.A. Baker, that one finds their “way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries.”