The Essential Tom Marshall

The Essential Tom Marshall

This is the ninth in the Essential Poets series published by The Porcupine’s Quill celebrating Canadian poets. David Helwig and Michael Ondaatje—friends of Marshall’s and fellow poets—edited the book and selected the material, giving us a sample of Marshall’s work from a career spanning three decades. Their purpose, as stated in the foreword: “to bring Tom back as a living voice.”

And what a beautiful format with which they have done that. This is a lovely little book. The cover art¹ is a plant motif, in rich tones of green, gold and burgundy, fitting for the fall launch at the end of September. It is luscious and organic, reflecting many of the themes and imagery to be discovered inside. The poems are printed on heavy cream paper with a slight texture; it is a book that you enjoy holding while you savour the poems it contains.

As a newcomer to Marshall’s poetry, I was immediately drawn to his vibrant images from nature which are found throughout his poetry. He seems particularly drawn to leaves and trees, gardens, sunlight, movement of some kind, particularly the wind. Some poems seem to be simply a list of various images, creating a mood or a whole picture, as in The Return, where he expresses his delight at being back in Canada:

            … Trees, clouds, blades
            of grass…
            … Waves lift

            and ripen in the crackling
            air. The brown
            pools untouched by wind

            in the hollows of large
            protruding roots shine
            secretly in the park.

Calm happiness is quite obvious.

The opposite is true in The Mother where imagery from nature help to express deeply felt conflicting emotions:

            Her soft lies are misted forsythia
            she cannot see through.

            But then, alone, she cries
            feeling the full wind
            sharply in her bones.

            The fall sumacs flame at her.
            There is no pity

That final vivid picture leaves no doubt about the true feelings of the narrator.

I was also intrigued by the wordplay in some of Marshall’s poems. In Words in Exile, and Field Syllabics, he selects certain phrases from the first part of the poem, and re-uses them, placing them in different contexts in the final stanza. Juxtaposing these lines creates a concluding paragraph, a rounding-up of the earlier ideas, but with a new way of looking at them and thinking about them.

In the final poem (       ) he not only plays with words but with punctuation as well, using the (  ) to express his thoughts about the difficulty of capturing and “fixing” an idea accurately:

I suppose I could …

… make you
immortal (in a manner of speaking)

fix you in some line formulation
(e.g., eyes: rain; hair: misted forsythia)

except, except you wriggle better in reality
than in that artifice

I enjoyed reading these poems very much and am grateful to The Porcupine’s Quill for sending me this lovely volume introducing me to this poet. I look forward to rereading his poems many more times and discovering new elements to appreciate and savour.

¹ The cover art is after a stipple engraving by Pierre-Joseph Redouté that first appeared in Les liliacées, Paris 1805, according to the back cover information.

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