Saturday, 6 March 2021

Meeting Mortality with Heady Images: Rahat Kurd on Kateri Lanthier


Rahat Kurd introducing Kateri Lanthier at the The Rhizomatic reading series, Thursday, October 15

I’d like to highlight the personally curated nature of The Rhizomatic—that it comes out of a shared passion for attentive reading. The goal of our series is to expand an audience for the poetry that we’ve had time to reflect on, draw meaning from, and form a real attachment to. I read Kateri Lanthier’s Siren last spring, while adjusting to life under quarantine.

Before the official public health emergency was declared, I think a deep survival instinct compelled me to order a coffee grinder, a French press, and several recent poetry titles by women in Canada. Having come through a difficult winter, I had really looked forward to being able to make travel plans in the springtime. Instead I had to accept that in the foreseeable future, my feet would not be leaving the ground. Filling my head with the voices of women poets seemed pretty much medically indicated.

Emergency, necessity, contingency, constraint. Conditions under which women have always made enduring art. Siren, Kateri Lanthier’s second collection of poems, insists on meeting the edge of her own mortality with heady images: cracked amethyst, silver and diamonds; crocuses, peonies and magnolias in full bloom—and comes as close to swooning lyricism as the contemporary register of a made-in Toronto English will allow.

To come to these poems on the page as a solitary reader is to be pulled into a sensibility both cerebral and playful—cerebral, in fact, because playful—making rich use of  allusion, internal rhyme, double entendres, among other forms of word play.

“The Year of La Jetée” was the first poem I read. From the first line—“Three fingers of moon in the glass”—I was struck by the power of mystery. The voice in this poem knows how much to conceal, and how much and when to reveal. The cadence of this mysterious voice pulls the reader in to consider the language more closely (as opposed to deliberate obfuscation, which can repel a reader’s desire to understand). I shared this poem with another friend over the summer, the poet Judith Penner, who wrote, “I love the poem as it reveals itself through re-readings, a slow emerging like the photo, surface light suggesting what’s below.”

Lanthier takes a frank, sensual pleasure in her prerogative as a poet: to structure thought in the marvellous ways that transform the prosaic and the quotidien.

I’m not sure whether it’s the vivid moments of retrospect in her work—remembering a younger self as a “waif in a snowbank”—or her acute consciousness of how closely life is always breathing next to death—that deepens her evocations of eros with a knowingness which is never weary or cynical—in fact, I would call it a lovely wisdom:

“our every kiss a power surge that sparked a rolling blackout”

It’s in both of these moods, particularly in her work with the ghazal form, that Lanthier’s musicality shines in a way that seems to channel the spirit of 19th century Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib.

I do not say this lightly, or only because Lanthier quotes Ghalib in translation in one of the epigraphs to her collection. In the ten years that I have been reading Ghalib, mostly in Urdu with a very grateful dependence on Urdu-English dictionaries, the help of my mother, and on the learned commentaries that span over 150 years on Frances Pritchett’s encyclopedic Ghalib website at Columbia, I’ve been made constantly aware of the many challenges that translation cannot overcome.

While only a few incorporate a radif or refrain, several poems in Siren embrace two major elements of the ghazal: the stand-alone couplet, and the thematic leap between couplets in a single poem, in a way that expands the lyrical capacities of English. We are living in a rich time of ghazal practitioners in English—Natasha Trethewey and Amit Majmudar come to mind, while my personal Ustad is the late Agha Shahid Ali. But even dispensing with the classical qafia/radif (rhyme/refrain) pattern, I suspect that it’s Lanthier who’s been struck by Ghalib’s particular lightning.

I’m going to ask Kateri to tell us, later on, about her experience of reading Ghalib in translation, which she wrote about in a wonderful and moving personal essay, “Lifelines: Of Heart, Lungs, Blood, and Ghazals." You can read it in the anthology
Against Death: 35 Essays On Living, published by Anvil Press in 2019, edited by Vancouver’s own Elee Kraljii Gardiner

Kateri, welcome to The Rhizomatic.

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