The Dry Valley, Bernadette Wagner
Radiant Press, 2019
As a devotee of life on the prairies and foothills, I felt an instinctual gravitation towards Bernadette Wagner’s second book of poetry. The Dry Valley uses three distinct regions of Saskatchewan (the mixed grasslands in the southeastern corner of the province, the city of Regina, and the Qu’Appelle valley) as frameworks for intense meditations on self and other. In reflecting on the bare facts of her experience – on life with an alcoholic spouse, on the ambiguity of platonic, romantic, and sexual adoration and passion, on the complex colours of a lake scene – Wagner deals in the trials and quiet beauties that make up a human life. That she does this with skill, care, and above all a deeply held attentiveness is the underpinning of The Dry Valley’s quality.
As I made my way through the book, I was struck most immediately by the great physicality of the work. A great number of the poems in The Dry Valley are grounded in the author’s sensations and bodily experience – as in “Love Song for Emma'', where the poet speaks of “Heat on my brow, the nape of my neck, / tingling down my chest, my torso…”. This profound descriptive capacity carries over to others as well, as when (speaking of her spouse) Wagner writes in “Takeover”: “Your hands rise. / Crows’ feet thicken around your eyes. / Your cheeks bulge. / Your lips form a thin line.”. These incisive physical descriptions are impressive – this is not at all an easy thing to do, and commands an altogether different skill set compared to poetry which relies heavily on abstractions. It is indicative as well of a more general strength of the work (perhaps its ultimate strength), which is an intense capacity for unsparing, exact observation. Nowhere is this more evident than during “In the hour after”, which ends the book’s second section. A list poem whose powerful intensity can be attributed almost entirely to precise observation and recollection; it is an earnestly excellent piece which must be read in full in order to be experienced truthfully.
Though this attentiveness is sustained throughout the book, it is nonetheless the case that not every poem in The Dry Valley is this affecting. Many of the pieces are narrative vignettes of varying quality, though most of these are made whole in the end by that same expansive flow of detail (“Learning to Sew” is a prime example). My one genuine qualm revolves around “Playing it Smart”, which is the book’s opening piece. It is a narrative poem about a moment in childhood, and while one may presume that the experiences it describes were formative for Wagner, that quality of the event is not conveyed to the reader through the poem’s ultimately prosaic language. That this piece is given pride of place in an otherwise admirable book (being not only the first poem of the text, but also printed in full on the book’s back cover) will probably always mystify me. In the end, though, this is an issue which is more than overcome by the quality of many of the book’s other parts.
As a rigorous and unflinching account of a human life, The Dry Valley is both important and commendable. It is exact, generous, faithful to itself, and imbued with a true sense of place – I am not surprised to see my instinctual gravitation vindicated.
Ethan Vilu is a student, writer, and editor from Calgary, Alberta. Their poetry longsheet A Decision re: Zurich was published by The Blasted Tree in 2020. In addition to serving as the current managing editor for NōD Magazine, Ethan works as both circulation manager and as a member of the poetry collective at filling Station. Currently passionate about absurdism, memory, and the dying art of golf club forging, Ethan can always be found working on a series of interminable manuscripts.