Emptying the Ocean, Kim Fahner
Frontenac House, 2022
There is a rich, deeply satisfying aesthetic experience in holding an object that is pleasant to the touch, in manipulating it, turning it, feeling its asperities, edges, and softnesses, in extending the flesh of the hands, wrists, and forearms to it, welcoming its weight into the body. The mouth does the same with sounds and words, hence the joy of poetry; thoughts, with figures, images, possibilities. Kim Fahner, her her luminous and attentive Emptying the Ocean, works through such an imaginary variation and manipulation of mythical, historical, and contemporary figures of women. The collection has a calming, focusing, vivifying effect; it creates a readiness to perceive anew.
In these poems, mythology continues its role in preserving lessons and a manner of inhabiting the world. Turning to Greek and especially Celtic myths, Fahner sheds the layers of meaning that have been attached to the figures of Medusa and Persephone to give them – and provide us with – other personalities, closer to what they might have been before being storied and passed on through tradition by men. In “Three Poems for Persephone” she moves through the tale told by male scholars, Persephone having been lured, then saved, punished, placed between the violences of her father and of other men; the knowledge women have, that Persephone had been taken, simply, and neither lured nor saved; and finally she finds Persephone as she was before this act of violence: “your own – / sovereign and spirited.” To love myths, Fahner suggests, is also to love the image of others myths continue to provide; loving myths and telling the stories that hold them is a way to maintain the order of things. “But women will know,” she writes, and her writing brings us toward the knowledge that is carried within myths, the truths they contain and offer, underneath and through the stories.
The central figure of this book is the selkie, a being from Celtic stories that changes her appearance from seal to human by shedding its skin (and donning it again to rejoin the sea). In my relatively limited perusal of these stories (on more or less reputable websites), I found recurring themes in the capture of the selkie by a man who steals her seal skin and weds her, and in her longing for the sea, her willingness to escape the life of captivity as soon as the occasion presents itself. This captivity consists notably in having to be only one thing – wife and mother – rather than living in two worlds, moving among two elements but generally being left alone. Although male selkies don’t appear in this book, in stories they would answer the dissatisfaction of the wives of sailors who were captive of the absence of their husbands. The captivity story, it seems, is used in self-actualization programs and by fashion designers as inspiration – so many ways to draw upon a myth and its story. But as people draw from myths, they leave less and less for others and for themselves, they dilute their meaning and their impact, they lessen the mysteries they were meant to let us approach.
In Emptying the Ocean, Fahner adds to myths, giving them new force, allowing them to replenish and circulate anew: Medusa gets her head back; Persephone, her sovereignty; the selkie, her world, her element. The title of the collection, which comes from a poem by Michael Crummey, functions in the same manner: these poems are not attempting to empty an ocean of its contents; they are emptying what the ocean has filled, “a dory that cradles, / floats, comforts, carries me / through a fierce Atlantic storm.” (25) This title poem is rich in description and images through which the speaker enjoins or instructs herself to “Begin with tears, saltwater” and goes on to specify the origins and circulation of the ocean in its sealife and in the galaxy. The dory, which must be emptied of all this matter, and not just water, emptied of all this past, seems to indicate an unspecified second step beyond this preparation for a journey, perhaps across the Atlantic to Scotland.
And just like “Begin with tears, saltwater” repeats in this poem (because we are never sure enough of how to begin, we never have quite enough courage), a common motif in the collection is repetition within and between poems. Within poems, repetition serves to anchor, deepen descriptions. In “Emily Dickinson’s herbarium,” a third of the way into the book, Fahner troubles this beginning and adds to the original hesitation: “Start with jasmine, first, / and then move to clover, / anemones, and gentians” in the first stanza, gives way in the last to “Start with jasmine, first, to be sure, / and then move to violets and lilies” (32). The soul, passion – spirit – comes first (from what I can gather); what follows is not as certain.
Across the collection, the description of the selkie’s skin – alabaster, mother-of-pearl – occurs on many occasions; the fact that she is dressed in black, only once. With reoccurrences like this, Fahner goes back to images and themes, shuffles them, brings objects into closer contact with others, highlights and creates constellations. The diverse uses of oranges, the curl of the fiddlehead, the smell of lavender, the hem of a dress, a staccato rhythm, skin, hair, ribbons: all these repeating elements act as landmarks, even when they are seen under a varying light, appearing as different entities depending on the angle, the time of day, the season.
The reverse (but not the opposite) of these repetitions is the lush, sharp vocabulary, a precision of description that includes words I had to look up: triskeles, whorl, mottled slag, cinnabar, cerulean, cornflower, gentians, all wonderful sounds to play with, all providing striking images once they are understood, as are the Celtic ceili, immram, and curragh. Fahner shows aspects of Newfoundland, of Lakes Erie and Ontario, naming the places where she and those who people her poems find themselves. To offset such patient use of the proper names of things, Fahner also gives us their generic names, speaking of birds and of bees without referring to the species, leaving us with movement and action rather than colour and shape.
Beyond diction, this effect of reversal is also present through a hyperconsciousness of tensions within experience. In “Tailings ponds are beautiful,” a title that is an immediately jarring statement to anyone who has seen a tailings pond, Fahner unveils part of the experience of living close to sites of extraction: the poem skips back and forth between the experience of beauty and the knowledge of death, the desire and the disgust they can inspire. She is at her (frequent) best in describing the world peripheral vision can create, the ponds “a bit seductive – / until you think that maybe you’d want to / dive right into them on a hot day, just to see / how your bare feet look through that / crinkly tissue paper shade of blue.” But what is inside the ponds is prehistoric death; she lets us feel its ghostly presence. And the following poem “You shall have homes,” brings forward the figure of the selkie whose feet rest in a murky pond that serves as a response to the “bright blue rivers of mine tailings” (38), experiencing a loss in the Shield, in the pond, the rocks, the tailings, the loss of life but also of being touched by elements that might be familiar.
Against this recurring loss, the elements (water, earth, fire, air, spirit) figure as paths at the heart of the poems and of the collection as a continuous whole. Early on, in “Porthole,” Fahner explicitly defines a journey. The elements replace the directions, spirit replaces the compass, serving to unite rather than to point. It's that kind of journey. A journey on water, first:
“She speaks of
as ice is made palimpsest,
mirrored mosaic wake trailing behind,
lace on deepest shade of navy sea.” (15)
What beauty. But the journey is also a response to an ongoing disaster, the sea “teal-shattered” (12). Another loss, a slow discovery of the manners in which the elements are shifting through destruction, here through iceberg melt.
Water and earth present paths and Fahner (at least to who reads her online publications where swimming often appears) places herself as “a swamp witch, / misplaced selkie, or forest oracle” swimming in a lake, hiking in the forest, both caught in the water and in the trees, and carrying them with her, the paths never clear or clean. There are also paths that go through fire, those of self-destruction and longing. There are stars, which mark paths but offer none. And there, in “Reminders,” a desire to be planet, bird, fish, to move through elements as she does on the ground. Or maybe the selkie is the speaker here. There’s a nice ambiguity, but what matters is the desire and longing that are expressed.
Aerial paths are not as stable as earthly or watery ones. Bees and birds stand in for air, their deaths and disappearances already known, or feared, and at least foretold (see the death toll in “Three billion canaries”).
While it is spirit, that is, women’s resistance, that unites the elements and provides hints of direction, water remains a central element, present in the others or in relation to them. Like the Pre-Socratic philosophers who attempted to approach the cosmos through these elements and recast myths in the process, Fahner perhaps can’t help but favour the element that brings her peace and meaning. Nonetheless spirit remains strong, incisive, decisive, a matter of refusals and willfulness (in the best sense of the word), notably through Emily and Charlotte Brontë, or a series of ekphrastic poems adding to Mary Pratt’s paintings where “desire still rises, / a season that can’t find its edges, always blurring.” (77)
There is a narrative element to the collection which I won’t spoil, or spend time making explicit, ending where things began before this cosmological exploration, in the selkie’s return to Ireland at the gathering of all elements, death and destruction still on the horizon. The wholeness, completeness and continuity of the book is apparent throughout, and given the strength of the bond between the poems, it was quite a surprise to read the notes that detail the individual lives of poems that emerge from such places, and varying previous publications. One imagines (at least I do) the book written in one long sitting, as an ongoing gathering, an endless weaving. But of course, that weaving is also a myth, one attached to a captive whose husband is discovering all the mysteries of the world and leaving death on his trail, a myth we no longer need as we attempt to find ways to halt these trails of death and the ongoing disaster in our elements.
writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His
most recent chapbook is with above/ground press, Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022, after 2020’s Coup), and his most recent poetry
collection is En d’sous d’la langue
(Prise de parole, 2021). He has also published two books of poetry with
Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas
(2011) and Quelques pas quelque part
(2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La
politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018). He has edited books and
journal issues, and keeps publishing academic articles that have nothing to do
with any of this. He’s on Twitter still, at least as of the time of writing,
and will be as long as it is more than ruins (that is where he got to know
Kim’s writing first after all), and back on Instagram, both at @lethejerome, and
trying out Mastodon @firstname.lastname@example.org.