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When Earth Leaps Up

by Anne Szumigalski; Mark Abley, ed.

Publishing a posthumous collection is a tricky proposition for reasons both commercial and artistic. It’s hard enough to sell copies of books by living poets – how much harder, then, when the poet has been dead seven years. And no matter how respectful the editor’s work, the book can never be, as Mark Abley confesses, the one “that [the poet] would have sent out for publication.”

It is clear from the many testimonials included in the publicity material, as well as from Hilary Clark’s preface and Abley’s afterword, that Anne Szumigalski was a well-loved and highly valued member of the literary community. If it is true, however, as Abley asserts, that “some, perhaps many of these poems” are among Szumigalski’s best, the text of this book suggests that she is not a major poet, but rather a writer of decidedly middling stature. Although there are a few groaningly bad lines and inept metaphors, as well as some awkward, clunky passages, the writing here is for the most part reasonably competent. It flirts with excellence, but rarely sustains it.

Szumigalski has been hailed as a flouter of convention, but the work collected here, commonplace in both content and form, has already aged badly. Many poems display the sort of pseudo-profundity more often found in the philosophical musing of undergrads than in the poems of Blake, with whom Szumigalski is occasionally compared. Among contemporaries who delve into the realms of mystical spirituality, Szumigalski lags far behind Avison, MacEwen, and Outram in craft, vision, and originality.

When Earth Leaps Up is a well-intentioned book, which brings to mind a proverb about hell older than Mr. Blake’s. This collection will no doubt find favour among its late author’s friends, but it’s hard to imagine it inspiring many new fans.<