Monday, August 3, 2020

Dale Tracy : On Stuart Ross’ “Poem for Catrina Longmuir”

Poem for Catrina Longmuir

Two nails extend from the wall beside my bed. The paint
on the wall is textured, like a rough fabric. Flakes of paint
erupt where the nails extrude. As if they are trying to hold
the nails in. The paint on the wall is grey, or a blue, or

a mottled green. Like my father, I am colour-blind. From
each nail a thin shadow extends horizontally to the right.
To the left of the nail on the left, and up, a shadow mass
begins from the corner of an unfolded piece of paper lying

on a foot-high stack of books on an end table. The shadow
mass continues down and to the right, just missing the nail,
veering diagonally down, passing four inches below
the nail on the right, with a couple of sharp drops, like

a New Mexico horizon. My friend Richard died in
New Mexico. The unfolded paper is a photocopy of
a tender poem he wrote at twenty, based on a photograph
of himself, his sister, and his brother. Richard’s poem ends,

“Let the wind blow / You couldn’t stop it if you tried.”
The nails supported your painting, Catrina,
for nearly a decade.

“Poem for Catrina Longmuir” opens on two nails, visible because a painting no longer covers them. We don’t learn about the painting’s absence until the poem’s conclusion, but we know the potential for loss right away when “[f]lakes of paint / erupt where the nails extrude. As if they are trying to hold / the nails in” (2-4). Still, the speaker discloses the painting’s absence in terms of how long it had been present and in terms of a continuing relationship with its artist: “The nails supported your painting, Catrina, / for nearly a decade” (18-19). Catrina’s painting is gone—but this poem is for her and speaks directly to her.
And Richard (outside of this poem, Ross has noted the recent loss of his friend, poet Richard Huttel) is gone—but his poems are not and one of them casts its shadow through this one. Like two nails, Richard and Catrina support this poem. When people connect through art, what can be lost, and what can’t be, and how do we live well with both the lost and the held? That this poem quotes from Richard’s poem does not make me think so much that one lives on through one’s art (Catrina’s painting is gone, so this poem doesn’t position art as eternal), but that one lives on in the relationships that art has helped create. These relationships are more expansive than the art itself—Richard’s poem’s shadow stretches across the wall, past its page’s borders.

Like the “shadow mass” of Richard’s poem “veering diagonally down” the wall, each “ex” in the first stanza’s “extend,” “textured,” and “extrude” together form a downward diagonal line (9-11; 1-3). The veering line moves to the right, like all the poem’s shadows. “Ex,” carrying meaning like “deprive” or “remove” or “cancel,” suggests, like shadows do, absence. But a shadow is an absence (no light) while also the sign of a presence (light, and something blocking it). Shadow is contrast. This poem’s last stanza contrasts its first, its shape forming a downward diagonal line to the left and mirroring the slash (/) it contains, which indicates the quoted poem’s line break. A line break means, yes, the end of a line, but also the imminent appearance of the next. The juxtaposition of Richard’s line—“Let the wind blow / You couldn’t stop it if you tried” (17)—with the painting’s absence suggests acceptance that one can’t stop loss. At the same time, the same logic (that the wind keeps blowing) suggests that loss is not like an ending.

This poem is interested in what things are like: the wall’s paint “is textured, like a rough fabric” (1-2), the shadow has “a couple of sharp drops, like / a New Mexico horizon” (12-13), and this speaker, colour-blind “[l]ike my father,” would see the painting only like the painter did (5). Ross approximates, too, in word pairings that don’t sound the same but look like they should (like blind/thin) or that almost rhyme (like nails/paint). A shadow is like absence and also like presence.
Shadows indicate the existence of a light source somewhere further on, like a photocopy of a poem “based on a photograph / of [Richard], his sister, and his brother” (15-16). The photocopy leads to the poem which leads to the photograph which finally leads to the people themselves. While Richard’s poem is conceptually based on a photograph of family, its photocopy is physically based “on a foot-high stack of books on an end table” (9), much like the nails “supported” Catrina’s picture. The “end table” carries a stack of books, a cultural context on top of which Richard’s poem can remain “unfolded” (14), casting its shadow. To follow the shadow is to find the shadow mass, the weight on the end that is actually a table.

Note to Readers
I appear here as a reader of these poems offering models of response, aiming to open up possibilities for other readers. I’ve connected with the poets, and I’d now love to connect with other readers. How do you respond to these poems? Do you have questions or comments about my readings? Or about this project? Please get in touch with me at

Stuart Ross is the winner of the 2019 Harbourfront Festival Prize for his contributions to Canadian literature. His 20 books of fiction, poetry, and essays include Motel of the Opposable Thumbs (Anvil Press, 2019), Pockets (ECW Press, 2017), and A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak and Wynn, 2016). Stuart was the 2010 Writer in Residence at Queen’s University. His poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Slovene, Russian, Nynorsk, and Estonian. Stuart lives in Cobourg, Ontario.

Dale Tracy, a contract faculty member, is an assistant professor in the Department of English, Culture, and Communication at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. She is the author of With the Witnesses: Poetry, Compassion, and Claimed Experience (McGill-Queen’s, 2017) and the chapbooks Celebration Machine (Proper Tales, 2018) and The Mystery of Ornament (above/ground, 2020). She received an honourable mention in Kalamalka Press’s 2019 John Lent chapbook award contest.

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