If you wanted to find a daughter abducted by a powerful man, you might need to cover a lot of territory. The earth mother Demeter gave wings to young women singers willing to search, but when they failed to find the man, she left them stuck on the rocks, singing to men who would be seduced.
Kateri Lanthier’s second collection of poems, Siren, also covers a lot of territory, and although, like Adrienne Rich and Phyllis Webb before her, she regularly makes use of the ghazal form, the territory is recognizably Canadian. Take the first line of “Siren,” the opening poem: “I was the waif in the snowbank of the banquet hall parking lot.” This is northern temptation, and familiar— who has not been stuck attending that wedding?
Although the ghazal (in Farsi, ‘talking with women’) leaps from one image to the next, it is formal in its construction, each couplet a self-contained thought, and sometimes a repeated penultimate phrase, and sometimes a rhyme. Its Persian roots cause it, in some iterations, to have an inclination towards abstractions. But here, in this well-reined poem, specific humour lives in its last line: “Sirens swim the butterfly to comfort each shipwreck.” The image of the butterfly stroke, surely the most ridiculous of all possible means of a human moving through water, coupled with the classic reference to Greek mythology might provoke a smile, but this particular siren’s purpose—to comfort— challenges the bad rep of the sirens in general. The image is funny, but tenderness has risen its head above the waves.
In this collection, the poet delivers rich combinations of imagery, much of it urban, and often at night, as in one of the most startling poems, “Guanyin Lamp.” Here both late night city streets, and the mythological east are evoked: we are presented as readers with the image of a city shop window lit with the figure of the Merciful One, where, the speaker says she rests her “forehead on the glass. Moth-hearted, lost in adulthood.” The surrender in the image is familiar to any of us who has felt in need of mercy.
What else does a siren have to say about urban desire? The language in “Rich” is so frankly sensual:
You steepled my nipple.
Our unspoken names
Swirled into each other.
Desire is also dangerous. In “Those Pretty Wrongs,” the speaker is caught:
I have one heel spiked in the streetcar track.
Flamingoed. You lift me out of my shoe.
We are flagrant. We force a swerve.
We are the storm in the drivers’ eyes.
Images of water, in all its forms, illuminate the emotional sense of these poems. This constancy of imagery is subtle throughout the collection, whether snow, storm, or tears, but this is a realization that comes only upon reflection. So much more is going on. Ghazal, fairy tale, Greek myth, modern poets, current politics—Lanthier has a sure touch with all of these. The ghazal structure places apparently random stones of imagery and thought for the reader to step on while crossing the poem. In the playfulness and frank sexiness of “Reluctant, Reluctant”—“the pearl smothered in mattresses, the grit at the heart of lust”—we see her making obvious use of Grimm’s “Rapunzel” and Andersen’s “Princess and the Pea.” Each self-contained couplet is like a long line, succinct as a haiku, as in the last line: “So wise, the swans, doubling back their necks to sleep on their own feather beds.”
Go ahead, count the syllables. And maybe proceed to a gathering of knowing haiku, a section of Siren addressed to a series of poets, William Carlos Williams and Anne Boyer among them, which ends with this:
had himself lashed to a mast
The Sirens stared back.
In “My Red Hair,” Lanthier works the 17 syllable line, but not doggedly, and is able to deliver the classic radif of the ghazal, where the second line of all the couplets end with the same words, as here, with the repetition of “my red hair.”
Phoenix. Firebird. Plath. I will eat them like air
Set your mouth near my temple. Fire-breathe my red hair.
Here the speaker relishes the bird imagery associated with sirens, asserts their relationship to a love-stranded contemporary poet, makes a proud declaration, and issues an invitation to worship her. The rich variety of the allusions, the breathiness of the words chosen is bracing. No one light a match.
Lanthier also employs the sly charm of nicknaming of the poet in the last two lines, the maqtaa (from Urdu): “Red Kat, October poet, you’re not immortal Red Tārā.” So no one should fear the speaker: she is not the Buddhist goddess of desire and attraction whose voice magnetizes. How suitably modest. The speaker does remind us, however, of: “The fire in snow, the flash in opal, my red hair.” That waif on the snowbank should not be ignored.
Lanthier was named by her mother, as a prayer for a beloved sister to live. She did, and Lanthier writes movingly in the penultimate ghazal, of her namesake, Kateri, the so-called ‘Lily of the Mohawks’, Kateri Tekakwitha of the Kanien’ke ha:ka. The speaker in the poem invokes, among other wonders, how this woman has been subject to the mythmaking of both the Catholic church and Leonard Cohen, but the abundance of references is in a light, firm hand. The speaker repeats her name, Kateri, as the radif, the repeated end word of every line in a ghazal, as here:
The Highway of Tears is a continent-wide slash
The missing women, never found…Where to leave flowers, Kateri?
This poignant reference to the grief over the murdered and missing women on Highway 16 in Canada hearkens back to the original role of those Greek Sirens, to search for the abductor of the Demeter’s missing daughter.
In the last poem of the collection, “Only Rain,” evokes the Earth goddess, Demeter again, in the classical association of women with all that puts us ‘in too deep’. The speaker rushes out, rueful and facing the harshness of the setting western sun:
I lie along the lakeshore, breasts to the embankment, Longing as
long as the clanging harbour.
Pressed against the wharfs, I curl my legs. I was a dancing girl.
How did I dream here?
Then, “With the wake of light along my curves, I’ve become the industrial shoreline” this latter-day siren says, and although pleasure “longs to drown,” she is capable of swimming to the islands “in three strokes!” and though mourning loss, is “floating past your reach.” Then, both symbol of the Irish soul rising and Leda, post-seduction, she is the swan
on the bank, dropping red petals.
After you left, I took the hurricane inside.
When I spit it out, it’s only rain.
The speaker intends to find the one who is lost, as “only for you would I dissolve. Would I drink the pearl and find it sweet.”
Desire, then, rules these poems. These poems are not sweet. They are remarkably beautiful just to say out loud, and come with an impeccable pedigree of acknowledgements—including Ghalib, beloved and translated by many, who is quoted in the epigraph: “I am the sound, simply, of my own breaking.” This work is formal and playful, of the street and sophisticated, saying what it is like to be desired, and then not, and what it is like when desire, or its lack, prompts you to song.