Most of the 30 or so earlier books in the Laurier Poetry Series are by writers better known than Nelson Ball, but few of his contemporaries have worked away in the shadows with such shy determination. Ball is a quiet, dignified individual who has supported himself modestly as an antiquarian bookseller specializing in Canadian literature. Now in his mid-70s, he has spent more than five decades crafting neo-imagist poems (as one might call them) about nature, domestic life, and the Ontario landscape. Although he has been quite prolific, this selection is his first book not produced by out-of-the-way small presses (including the two imprints he himself founded to promote the work of others).
He and his late wife, the painter Barbara Caruso, lived and worked in Toronto for 20 years before decamping to the small Ontario town of Paris in the mid-1980s. The change didn’t seem to alter Ball’s poetic form or diction. As he writes in the afterword to this new volume, “I liked haiku as simple nature poems. But I didn’t want to restrict the forms of my poems, so I didn’t try to write haiku.” Instead, Ball gave haiku’s contemplative spirit a more ambitious architecture. In his introduction, the book’s editor, Stuart Ross, writes with admiration for Ball’s “attention to detail, this devoted passion, this respect for every word – every syllable, even.”
Ball is foremost an intense observer of his surroundings, both the indoor world (“Dirt’s matter / that’s broken loose // from where it belongs / and re-arranged itself // throughout / our house”) and in the larger environment. His work is full of respect for insects, birds, fish, and small mammals. “Many plants and animals inhabit this land. / Those I know are too numerous to list. / Those I’ve never seen I know exist in even greater numbers. // Air wraps them all. / All breathe air. / This poem is a prayer for air’s preservation.”
That he calls the poem a prayer reveals a religious spirit not so obvious in his work as a whole. In one poem he wonders why Jesus should have become such a figure when he was only one of many Jewish prophets in his time and place. “Yes, he was / a good man. There have been // many good men, some recorded in history, / most, probably not. The real story // is that Jesus Christ had friends / who were writers.”