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Patient Frame

by Steven Heighton

Patient Frame is Kingston-based poet, fiction writer, and essayist Steven Heighton’s fifth collection of poems. As readers of his work have come to expect, this book has tremendous range, covering subjects both personal and political, and employing forms as diverse as elegy, ballad, haiku, sonnet, and dramatic monologue. As in his previous collection, The Address Book, Heighton also appends a section of excellent “Approximations” – more or less loose translations of poems by other poets.

The historical and political poems in the book – especially “You Know Who You Are” (an angry address to a pedophilic cleric) – are impressive, but the ones that linger longest tend to be those that stick closer to home. Particularly moving are “Outram Lake” (an elegy that pays homage, both in content and style, to the late poet Richard Outram); “Home Movies, 8 mm” (included in Tightrope Books’ Best Canadian Poetry 2009 anthology); “Herself, Revised” (a poem about reading to a daughter who is quickly outgrowing being read to); and “On a Change of Address Card Sent a Few Weeks Before You Died” (an elegy for an aunt).

Heighton’s prosody ranges from the formal to the free, but mostly roams the fertile middle ground of what Paul Verlaine called vers libéré (freed-up verse). Rarely does Heighton constrain himself to a single metre or full rhyme. With the exception of a few Asian-inspired imagistic poems, his aesthetic inclines toward the baroque: “solace that forms / and soars from the grooves and nerves / of this forked, frail sack of bones, briefly marrowed with music.” The hazard of this maximalist tendency has always been the inclusion of the odd purple patch, and Patient Frame succumbs to this: “Still in the Agent // Orange skies, your archangelic contrail lingers.” Such passages, however, are minor flaws in a very good collection.