Mourning with decorum

Before We Had Words

A review of Before We Had Words by S. P. Zitner

Published on October 1, 2002

Before We Had Words
S. P. Zitner

McGill-Queen's University Press

This elegant book of verse is an exercise in the elegaic written, as the author indicates in more than one poem, at a time of old age and frequent losses. It is a summary of loss: wives, friends, brothers, mothers, and children move away, grow ill, die. There is mourning for that good night’s sleep of youth and the promises that were in it. The tone is one of ironic acceptance of the inevitable. In the poem “February Letter” the mood and tone of many of the other poems is captured:

My judgement is clouded by this heavy winter
and the bad news of old age.
… I trust you will forgive me and accept
what a comfort it is to run out of advice.

Throughout these poems what begins as a loss is redeemed by the insight of the moment: how to mourn with decorum, the ability to appreciate the dawn after a night of insomnia, the imperfect knowledge of one’s own foibles, and not least, a constant pleasure in music as restorative. These insights are not those of the herald of a trumpet, but of the quiet insinuation of the oboe.

Being a man of words does not keep Professor Zitner from knowing their limitations. The title Before We Words plays itself out through several meanings: the relationship with his father (“when I was still your child/before we had words”) or the reflections on fanaticism found in “September 11, 2001”:

…before we had words
that sucked the holiness from things
to feed abstractions. Creatures of such words
believed their paradise led through desolation,
… Facing this ruin, to be at a loss for words
consecrates again the waking.

There is a notion that words hamper meaning or can destroy relationships. In the title poem the poet refers to “unlanguaged clarity.” It could be suggested that this “unlanguaged clarity” also plays in the irony which is so much in evidence in these poems. Irony insinuates, and what is being said means something slightly other, bringing our linguistic endeavours back to the ground of our actual breathing self.

This collection of poems is struck with lively images which often turn meaning on a dime, as the poet gets at least a chuckle, if not a last laugh, at our human predicament. In hospital after heart surgery he has the vision of nurses and doctors taking up shawns and sackbuts, music stands and a virginal to play the fibrillation of his heart. A poem whose imagery speaks to all the themes of this book is “Try not to say it” which opens with

Just like a mugging. A lefthand
from behind against your mouth,
a right at your Adam’s apple;
Parkinson’s has found your voice box.

The exploration of what one can say but shouldn’t, what one wants to say but can’t, and the groping silence which binds both the Parkinson’s sufferer and the friend who would wish to comfort, searches beyond the words to the wordless connection of friendship and understanding which linger on after the sharp edges of differences are muted by the years.

In “West End” we learn what the poet finds when

Beliefs fail, projects, decades, lives;
not hours and minutes, this one.
Through the foliage of the old estate
the river hangs in sequins on the trees,
and windows on the Jersey heights
ignite with morning like the golden stones
in the mosaics of the saints.

Professor Zitner’s poetic voice quietly says nay to the defeats of age and death. mRb

Lucille King-Edwards is co-proprietor of The Word bookstore.



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