Harper, Lea: Shadow Crossing

Harper, Lea
Shadow Crossing
Black Moss Press, 2000
Softcover, 77 pages

Review by:  Kerry Riley
All poems reproduced with permission from Black Moss Press

I am reasonably certain (whether or not these things are openly acknowledged) that most alert, attentive, and self-aware individuals have, from time to time, experienced a fleeting intimation of things beyond the concrete world, a passing frisson of perception, a glimpse of lines of connection and significance operating beyond our ken. Jung would have called these experiences  “numinous.” They can flash from the heart of life’s small synchronicities, blossom under certain moody atmospheric conditions, be found in the residue of a powerful dream, or vibrate at the fringes of modern physics.   Although poet Lea Harper’s collection, Shadow Crossing is an evocative exploration of life’s passages, the reach of family, the manifestations of light and dark within an individual life, and a search for meaning and connection, anchored firmly in personal experience and the concrete world, it is the work’s pervading sense of numinous near-epiphany, a sort of portentous shimmer, that remains, for me, its most striking and memorable feature.

Harper, a multi-award-winning Canadian poet, novelist and songwriter, whose writing has been widely published and anthologized in Canada, the United States and Great Britain, currently resides in Haliburton, Ontario.

The thirty-three poems found within the covers of her latest poetry collection, Shadow Crossing are often enigmatic, although some general comments can be proffered.  The first eleven poems are grouped under the section title, “The Path of No Return.” Here, the “path” can, perhaps, be interpreted as the arc of an individual life, as the poems tend to deal with significant, formative experiences, the cruelty, absurdity and mystery of life and possible responses to such.  The first poem, “In  Apogee,” lays out the need to understand the forces that shape us, in its opening lines:

Without a sundial for the shifting zodiac
We are accidents of chance
Sightless to circumstance
Strangers in apogee

Here “zodiac” may be taken at face value, but in reference to the collection that follows, can also be interpreted as the unique constellations of  life- and attitude-shaping influences (both negative and positive) into which we are initially born, and which do shift as we grow and come into our own as autonomous beings.  Without insight into these shifts, a means of measuring them, old influences can continue to exert unjustifiable power within our psyches.

This section is also proccupied with the the end of the path, and the inevitability and sometimes apparent capriciousness of death. In this context the poems “In Your Wake” and “Atonement” demand particular attention.  “In Your Wake”captures, with cool precision, the moment of transition between life and death, and the finality with which the veil between the two worlds closes. “Atonement” is notable especially for its rhythmically intense rendering of the violent euphoria of death, cunningly linked to the power and energy of a dam’s rip current.

Significantly, the section ends with the work’s title poem, “Shadowcrossing,” in which the “shadow” seems to represent the psychic influence of past experiences (over and about which we may have had little control or understanding) whose presence impedes our quest for spiritual autonomy. The shadow resides, as the poem tells us, at “the crossroads/where destinies intersect” and is “the darkness before ascension.”  Harper’s sensibilities are clearly Jungian in nature, and her “shadow” a close fit for that of the great 20th century Swiss psychologist, who identified it as the element which encompasses the “hidden, repressed and unfavourable (or nefarious) aspects of the personality ” (1). In this Jungian light Harper’s “ascension,” can be read as the essential integration of the shadow into the personality, a coming to terms with one’s complete self, a process which Jung believed was essential for a healthy psychic life. A successful shadow crossing, then, leads the way to a psychologically mature and authentic life.

In the middle section of the book, entitled “Blood of the Earth,” the scope widens somewhat, to meditate on connections or disconnections, as the case may be, to land (there are references, for example, to Oka and Palestine) and the boundaries (ethnicity, nationality and religion, among others) between things.  Without stretching the connection too far, we could note that Jung also postulated the existence of a sort of societal shadow – the collective dark side of a culture in which the seeds of catastrophe germinate – and that a number of Harper’s preoccupations in this section could justifiably be assigned to this broader shadow. “Dreamers Rock” and “Blackthorn Winter” are two entries that stood out for this reader – both compact and economic meditations beautifully harnessing the metaphoric depth and power of the natural world to expose components of our modern collective shadow.

BLACKTHORN WINTER

We’re down
to the skeletons of trees
bare bones of winter
The wind thieves
the heart’s flickering heat

With less sense than rabbits
in their invisible mounds
the bear in muzzled sleep
we brave this cold season
dream down the sun
leap years, live
in those lost hours

Confound the bitter queen
whose fingers are the stubs
of stars and splintered moon
her mirror glare of ice
the slippery path
where the strong and fair have fallen

 The final and shortest section of the book delivers eight poems under the title “True Colours,” revealed, presumably, in the clear and unobstructed light of self-knowledge. There is a sense of completion and acceptance in these poems, ruminations on the eternal ties between parent and child, on the delight of finding one’s place, and hope-filled mention of children sleeping in shadowless rooms. Lastly, in the lovely and haunting “The Lake in July,” comes reconciliation of loss and death with the cycles of nature, the eternal and the infinite.

As mentioned earlier, Harper makes frequent reference to the natural world, and is adept in her juxtaposition of image and concept.  Clearly, she has drawn on her love (but also close observation) of her Haliburton, Ontario home, and natural phenomena (wind, thunder, light and shadow, the seasons), landforms (lakes, rocks) and animal life (praying mantis, hummingbirds,  dogs and horses, snakes, rabbits, sea urchins) make frequent appearances in her poetry.  There is, however, none of the piggy-backing (so often present in less deft “nature” poetry) on the presumed potency of the natural world (no green coattailing) — each natural image is used advisedly, and economically, and makes a precise contribution to the poem’s larger purposes. The image of hollow trees being toppled by the wind, employed as an explanation of the consequences of  spiritual emptiness, is one simple but effective example of this facility.

Harper’s overall sensibility is (as mentioned earlier) Jungian and metaphysical, concerned with “the things we cannot touch,” “blurs of dust and light,” and “the distance between two things disappear[ing]/in vibrant synchronicity.”   The idea of death, not as a loss but more of a partition, arises several times, notably in “In Your Wake,”  “I Have The Power,”  and “The  Lake In July.” An interior timeline that encompasses both lost worlds, ancient civilizations and Nazarites,  ritual, and modern day Los Angeles, coupled with a spatial perspective spanning the atomic and planetary (again, anchored and centred in the natural world and individual experience) and cultural touchstones including Greek mythology, Shakespeare, the Bible, Emerson and Isadora Duncan, gives the work, as a whole, its sense of epic sweep and timelessness.  Although I have not been able to elucidate it completely, I think part of the secret of the poems’ “numinosity” which I so admire, is the author’s ability to capture the intersection of the great and the small, the universal and the individual, the now and the forever,  in key images.  Lines such as,  “hummingbirds levitate above the fuschia/like little yogi” (2) “stillness draped in bougainvillea,” (3) and the image of dead butterflies, collected from the sides of roadways, “mount[ed] under glass/in monuments of driftwood/the myth of immortality,” (4) jump to mind in defense of this assertion.

In the end, Shadow Crossing is a dense and rewarding read and elegant affirmation of our own personal glimpses of the ineffable, yet essential, in life.  I can think of no better way to end this review, than with the last poem of the collection, and it’s lovely, final comment on existence:

The Lake In July

This is the day you longed for
months ago
under a blanket of snow
To close your eyes
and see the sun
streaked in waves under your lids
the shadow of your lover
crossing over
a bridge into new lands:
berries filled with blood
cedar thick with musk
his taste on your tongue

Doors flung open
your sheets set sail on twin maples
The body sheds its dying cells
for stars stolen from the night

You open your eyes
to the mauve lake
a shroud at daybreak:
the outline of the trees
the outline of your life
liquid, shimmering
like a song sent out over water

You wonder how long
the earth has been soiled
the heart this heavy

The lake accepts your tears
To her you are weightless
What isn’t swallowed up
is drifting away
drowning or being born
Apart from the wind
ruffling the surface
what else actually happens?

_____________________________

1.  Man and His Symbols. Jung, Carl G., M.-L. von Franz, Joseph L. Henderson, Jolande Jacobi and Aniela Jaffe. Dell. 1964. p. 110

2. From the poem, “In Apogee”

3. From the poem, “Independence Day”

4.  From the poem, “Butterfly Picking”

FURTHER RESOURCES:  The author reading her work.

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