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Alert to Glory by Sally Ito (review)

From: Canadian Ethnic Studies
Volume 45, Number 1-2, 2013
pp. 287-289 | 10.1353/ces.2013.0033

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The title of Sally Ito's book, Alert to Glory, wittily describes both the state of consciousness her poems explore and the purpose of the collection as a whole. Ito's poems explore what it means to be alert in its adjectival sense—to be fully attentive. The collection as a whole is also "an announcement to look out for something" (OED, s.v. "alert"), the definition of alert as a noun. Ito's title signals the seriousness with which this book takes the relationship between sacred insight and poetry as well as the wit with which she considers this relationship.

The first section, "Eye, The King," focuses on sacred insight. In "Apprehend," Ito insists that "To apprehend / is surely one of God's commandments to the steward, that poet, / who in his hour as policeman might enjoy the brief moment / of a world in fetters for him." The poet's task is "not to possess or own" the world nor, it would seem, to comprehend it: the poet's constant state is "alertness" and "watching" until "the world is be seized / and God makes a wonder of his heart." Ito appeals to the senses in order to describe the divine, rejecting the notion that contemplation demands a denial of physicality. The most striking example occurs in "Ordinary Awe," which describes "Such moments / when the mind-bell is struck dumb and the hollow fills / with shuddering sound, come once and once again. / Ordinary awe compels as suddenly as it recedes / —a wave that enters, sweeps away, sometimes returns." The repetition of "once and once again" mimics the reverberation of the bell, marking a shift from a wave of sound one might hear to a wave of sound one might feel. Ito's imagery throughout this section suggests that poetry can provide sacred insight by alerting the senses through imagery.

The second section, "Hunger and Innocence," considers the role that poetry and poets might play in alerting others to glory by employing voice in diverse ways. Whereas the first-person personal pronoun only appears in the first section as part of reported speech, it is the first word in "Sister Candida," which opens the second section. The first three poems in this section seem to provide an intimate glimpse into the mind of a speaking "I." The fourth poem in the section, "Bisque," returns to the second-person pronoun to depict a dream "you" have following the death of the poet Margaret Avison, who "is leading you to the heaven / she remembers poetry was for her." This poem's use of the second person allows the speaker (or the poet—Ito is intimately familiar with Avison's work) to project intimate feelings elsewhere, yet it also implies that some experiences demand that one relinquishes the self. "Lost Day" acknowledges that sometimes "you...must submit" while simultaneously suggesting that days lost for banal reasons can reveal their preciousness. The image of skipping stones in "Poet" provocatively suggests that poetry is closely connected to the process of letting go.

Many poems in the third section, "Claimed for a Season," wittily explore how children might alert us to glory, especially in those moments when parents feel furthest removed from the divine. While fathers do not experience childbirth or children in exactly the same way as mothers, I certainly empathize with the frustration mingled with joy that Ito describes in "Clematis," when the baby's need for attention expels other thoughts or ideas. "Thirst" evokes the exasperation felt when a child wakes in the night to ask for water, yet it also transforms this moment into an opportunity for prayer, albeit a desperate one. "Bitch Self" plays with voice to describe how "Mothering sometimes is just badass work." While the suppression of the "I" in the early poems in this collection has a devotional purpose, the mixture of second and third person pronouns here emphasizes the separation between the mother as she wishes herself to be, the mother "overwhelmed by fatigue and emotion," and the mother who becomes angry: "when the anger surges through, you become her—dog mother...Bitch-self you become." The final stanza shows how the internalization of imperatives, which are always...



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