POEMS: Okie Chronicles (2005), Out of Silence (2009), What to Make of It (2012). Pamela Harrison.

Harrison, Pamela. POEMS: Okie Chronicles (2005), Out of Silence (2009), What to Make of It (2012). David Robert/Turning Point, Cincinnati. 12/12

During high school and university English lit and since, I never took to poetry. I hate to cast myself in excusing or explaining this as a literalist or as having a tin ear, but I’m sure both of them contributed. Once losing my way in the linear meaning of a poem (this sometimes happened while reading the title), if I hadn’t cottoned on aesthetically I was sunk.

I’m a bit the same in art galleries. I just wander trying to be unobtrusive and use an old technique of choosing my favorite in each room, until something happens. After it does (if it does) I don’t have to worry because I see everything …differently.

When I met Dennis McCullough and heard that his wife writes poetry I formed a mental picture of a silken-voiced New England aristocratic grande dame who would see through my poetic illiteracy in a second. Then I met Pamela and was enormously relieved that, like Dennis, she’s just real. “Just” like the “common” in common sense: something you almost never see. What a pleasure to spend time with her. But even so disarmed, at their home I began reading her first book with the firm expectation born of experience that I was going to get lost, and therefore have to provide to the delightful author a pretense of appreciation, which she would see through in a second.

But there was no problem. Okie Chronicles isn’t just transparently coherent in its content, it’s narrative, so through the early poems story-minded I kept reading as vague fictional characters took shape, except that there was a growing autobiographical intuition informed by having met the writer in person. And then: BOOM.  The old aesthetic trigger went off and I was reading for beauty as much as for meaning. The full satisfying feast. And not the least of the pleasure was being able to show admiration. The first book reminded me of Alice Munro, I told Pam correctly, because it’s that same art gallery experience I have with her superficially over-simple but suddenly absolutely gorgeous stories. I believe the poem that got to me was The Gist of It but I can’t really remember. Same kind of thing with Out Of Silence.

This past fall Pam gave me What to Make of It, declared as autobiography (the others reference past family), and exactly the same thing happened. The trigger this time had the apparently uninspiring title Cleaning the Toilet (page 53). It’s very short, ten lines, but it pulls Pam’s fundamental hard work, Dennis’s patient intensity, their love for one another, and enormous ambivalence (“… I could wash away the stain/if I could just get deep enough.”) together along with the preceding pages. Tending to the Holidrome confirmed it, Pam again working away with her eyes open to blindness and danger.

Thanks, Pamela, for letting me imagine I can read poetry. 9.0 (I don’t necessarily like Pam’s poetry better than Dennis’s book, but I think my familiarity with his content shielded me from the same kind of impact.)

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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