Murmuration

By Benjamin Hertwig

by A.B. Dillon Thistledown Press 2020/$20.00/96 pp.

At this particular historical moment, when the rhythms and rituals of grief and belonging are upended by the reality of a global pandemic, A.B. Dillon’s latest book of poems offers insight into the private ecologies of grief and meaning-making. Murmuration is not a response to the pandemic as such, but Dillon’s poetic invitation into the hard stones of loss and the soft loam of healing provides the familiar, kinetic balm of pebbles dropped into a pond. These are poems that concern the “threshold world of in-between moments,” thin places and stretched times.

Murmuration is not so much God-haunted as ecologized. The physical objects of faith blend into material surroundings, absorbed by soil and wall and roof. A “holy water font at the front door” and “crucifixes hung over thresholds” become “so familiar as to go unnoticed.” Dillon’s work is a mapping of genealogy, of planting memory and communing with ancestors. “[We] speak in the garden,” she writes, “you from invisible otherwheres,/ me digging in the soil.” How do we remember those who have gone before, while accepting the material conditions of now? How do we accept and integrate the “sodden/ solitary” times?

The figure of the crow girds the collection, opening, intersecting and closing the book in language both mutable and permanent as river rock. The crow is chorus, a swooping benediction, “asinging dolorosa hymnims,” willing to “carry the sorrows away” if only the humans will let their “feelings fly upwards.” Dillon’s textual dexterity is admirable, and the crow, in its various evocations, speaks at times in the mellifluous compound nouns and couplings—“dappledown greens” and “bendish blues”—of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The poems concerning the flooding of the Bow River are among the most moving. In “The Flood” and “Not Quite Returning,” the speaker writes of displacement and estrangement and leaving a home during difficult times: “a white X was used during the plague/ but I made mine out of green painter’s tape/ marked my front door and became an evacuee.” Ecological grief is here too, and anger. The search for solidity in contingency is surely something many can relate to right now.

“At the planting is hope,” Dillon reminds us, and there is goodness in hope. And yet “nothing stays/ which is as it should be/ foreverandever, ahhmymen.” Like the collection’s crow chorus, picking “shiny tidbitties of glass” and “prettypretty china bits,” Dillon is concerned with how we create meaning after loss and out of fragmentation. Amidst turmoil, Murmuration affirms that poetry is about remembering well, accepting what is and moving into uncertain futures with tenacious hope.

Benjamin Hertwig is the author of Slow War (MQUP).

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