The Crow's Vow

The Crow’s Vow

A review of The Crow's Vow by Susan Briscoe

Published on March 1, 2010

The Crow’s Vow
Susan Briscoe

Signal Editions

Susan Briscoe’s The Crow’s Vow is another work dealing with a dysfunctional union. Her poems in this sequence are dignified and reticent, so reticent that the terms of estrangement are never made very clear. When one of the poems provides a few outer details – there appears to be a blended family with children, a wife who writes essays, and a man who has clients – the reader seizes them eagerly, hoping to discover a context. The gulf between the man and woman is shown by their differing responses to nature and gardening – they seem to live in the country – and by the widening gulf in the bed. The wife longs for an arm around her waist, if only to shrug it off.

The sequence of the poems follows the seasons, but it is not clear if the pattern covers a single year, and this tough-minded poet would not think of ending the sequence with spring. The man (who is presented very sketchily) repeatedly speaks of love, but the woman doesn’t believe him and dismisses his love as “skimmed milk virtue.” The reader starts to long for the couple to seek counselling or break into open conflict instead of passive-aggressive manoeuvres: Briscoe knows how to build tension. The presence of the crows throughout the book creates an ominous atmosphere, especially as they have much in common with the humans. Like Kate Hall’s mynahs, they argue, they build a home, and like the characters in the poem, they don’t sing. Perhaps they have marriage vows of a sort, as the title of the book hints.

At the end, after a separation, the wife does appear to admit the husband to her consciousness, to take him seriously, as a man wanting to be seen. Our last glimpse of them finds them in bed, though they appear to have come to the house, single file, through heavy snow – the kind of simple but subtle detail that Briscoe excels at. She is a brilliant writer whose brilliance manifests itself in small strokes, images of “kisses like slim dimes,” sharp-eyed observations (“the snow melts first / at the base of things”) and sudden shifts of tone. Her reference to Erik Satie in one poem points to an aesthetic of minimalism, of small utterances that imply more than they say: an honourable approach to poetry.

Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.



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