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Raymond Souster.

Ottawa, Oberon Press, c1983.
173pp, cloth, $23.95; paper, $11.95.
ISBN 0-88750479-5; 0-88750480-9.

Grades 11 and up.

Reviewed by Sister Anne Leonard.

Volume 12 Number 6
1984 November

Going the Distance is Raymond Souster's first book of new poems since Hanging In, which won the Toronto Book Award in 1979. Souster has been publishing since 1946 with a total of twenty-seven books of poetry including four volumes of Collected Poems (Oberon, 1980-1983), and two war novels written under the pseudonym of Raymond Holmes. Souster, a bank clerk in Toronto, knows how to handle a variety of subjects. His diction is concrete and austere, the humour sardonic, and images clear and strong. The opening poem in Going the Distance, entitled "The Way Every Poem Should Be Written" focuses on the bricklayer who "fills you with confidence/that whatever he builds will be straight and true," and "all done with the hands, human hands." This bricklayer resembles Souster, the careful craftsman who builds up his poem.

In Going the Distance, Souster affirms the value of the commonplace object, a Toronto street-scene, a society outcast. He provides a body of disarming lyrics but also depicts nature, well-known persons, and historical events. The cover displays in black -and-white, naked trees, straight and spindly with a solid rugged bark in the foreground, suggestive of the author's preoccupation with being "closely rooted to the earth" ("Looking Up or Down"). In "The Uptown Gulls," Souster looks at our city and sees "our rootless/driven-to-desperate lives." His sensitivity to those whose lives are rootless is conveyed in the disquieting poem "Adrift": He does not want us to forget that "middle-aged woman/always with a plastic shopping-bag/half empty carried in her hand. . .who stares ahead blankly at nothing." Souster's recapturing of these fleeting street scenes or of an historical event helps us identify with what has happened so that we do not turn away from human ills.

His nature poems become personal experiences; the "I" of the narrator enters the poem; scene and mood shape the poetic design and rhythm. Some of his poems are like note-book reflections; others are more polished.

Souster concludes Going the Distance with an epic entitled "Pictures from a Long Lost World, July 20, 1944, Germany: 'Stauffenberg's Day.'" With careful precision, he recounts those hours when the attempt on Hitler's life miscarried. It is a stately poem rising to a dramatic conclusion when Stauffenberg is led out to be shot:

      I'm ready for this, Stauffenberg realizes, any thought of death
      doesn't bother me after North Africa. But what about the others?
      And suddenly this man who up to now has said very little,
       declares in a firm voice that he alone should die as ring-leader.

Through a retrospective tone and skilled use of imagism, Souster is able to etch those scenes we would often rather forget. It is as if he recognizes the importance of uncovering impressions that have become "imprisoned" in our lives and are silent like the sealed up storm sewer water "Crying out/as it rushes toward the river" ("Storm Sewer"). People and events, once they have touched our lives, enter our life stream:

      Even though we may not hear it
       that water somehow flows in us
       the sound of underground streams
       always alive, sometimes whispering
       sometimes shouting
       through our most secret blood

Looking within keeps us rooted to the earth, keeps us "even almost human."

Going the Distance is a well-bound volume of poems. Its lack of a table of contents is regrettable not only because a listing of the titles of poems would help convey something of the range of Souster's poetry but also because of having constantly to go through the book to find a particular poem.

Sister Anne Leonard, Convent of the Sacred Heart, Halifax, NS.
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