the breath you take from the lord
Since I’ve decided to renew my relationship to poetry, an essential part of that process is to re-engage the poetry of other writers.
I found Patrick Friesen’s 2002 compilation, the breath you take from the lord, at a bookstore near Yonge and Eglinton in Toronto. It’s a slim 80-page collection (though that’s not exactly slim if you’re the one trying to put together poetic writing you’ll be proud to stand behind!) published by BC’s Harbour Publishing.
Prior to picking up this book, I’d never read anything by Friesen, but if I’m entirely honest, I’d taken a sharp turn away from poetry a couple of decades ago. I find from his blog, that Friesen appears to be quite prolific. the breath you take from the lord is not his most recent work and I have no idea where it stands in relation to his other published work, which appears to go back to the mid-1970s.
I snagged the breath you take from the lord without significant expectation of the contents….but as a challenge to see what some contemporary Canadian poets are doing. The first series of poems in the book is gathered as clearing poems and are numbered 1 through 26. The theme of the group appears to call on imagery of clearings in wooded areas – with ample reference to trees such as birch and poplar. It sets a shaggy, scrubby tone to the series. That shagginess is reflected in the unpunctuated lines of the series. Each line contains 2 or 3 lines that might have been more comfortable on their own. Friesen seems to be obscuring and connecting meaning within the lines in a form that might poetically imitate scrubby forest – the bush where branches interconnect and occasionally slap you in the face. The effect, at least for me, conveys the bush and not the clearings and most of the series left me indifferent, but with a few residual scratches. My favorite line of the whole volume was from “5“,
this is when you can hear the dog in the distance and you know he’s
coming for you
The line is evocative and promising and just dangerous enough to hold my attention.
The second series of poems in the book are collected as “traumeri“. From this collection, the poem “small rooms” came through as the strongest and most clearly stated, followed closely by “signature” and “kaddish for the old man“. This trio of poems encouraged me to read them several times and many stay with me the way well-written song lyrics do. These poems felt much more deeply personal and engaged.
Friesen’s spiritual/theistic themes, were evident, as might be expected by the title of the book, but they seemed to be part of the book’s landscape, to borrow from the bush-and-clearing metaphor, rather than a focal point. It may have been intended that theistic assumptions would be part of the landscape, but not the central fact of the collection.
Taken as a whole, the breath you take from the lord did not overwhelm, confuse or inspire me. I also didn’t laugh or engage on a significant emotional level. Occasionally, I considered poems, such as “kaddish for the old man” as semi-obligatory pieces and how I might write my own sentiment-laden item without entirely succumbing to sentimentality. I’m glad that Friesen isn’t sentimental or un-approachable in style.
On his website, Friesen claims,
Right off, I have worked out a voice over a fairly long lifetime of writing, a voice which is different from any other. Voice does come out of craft, experience and personality, so any poet who is not caught up in trying to replicate what is current/fashionable will develop a unique voice. I think probably my work, generally, works with a longer line, with loping rhythms, more than most other current poetry. But, then, I sometimes work with a shorter line. So, who knows?
I’m not sure, on the evidence of this book, that I agree with Friesen’s claim to success with a long line and loping rhythms. It may be that he has worked out his approach in poetry he’s written more recently. I’d have to sample another book to know if he does in fact have an established voice. Certainly the poems in “clearing poems” and those in “traumeri” are not similar to each other such that they are clearly from the same pen. Perhaps the similarities are clear to someone who has spent much more time studying the poems than I have so far.
I’m glad that I picked this book up and I expect to return to several of the poems at a later time to see if they generate new impressions when I’m in a different mindset than during my initial read. Friesen is certainly a poet who loves language and imagery and packs lots of imagery in each poem. I’d say that you are in “the bush” with Friesen’s poetry…it is worth picking the book up to have the odd branch slap you in the face. In a world dominated by short attention spans and minimal linguistic grace, it is good to read such a line as
what matters happens in small rooms a call a letter what comes
after the intention
Friesen left me wanting to read more poetry, and that’s a gift I appreciate.
Friesen on Goodreads
Thoughts on Poetics, Having Read Friesen
References and Citations
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- Original draft: June 9, 2016
- Updated October 21, 2018