A review of The House the Spirit Builds by Lorna Crozier, Peter Coffman and Diane Laundy

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

The House the Spirit Builds
by Lorna Crozier, Peter Coffman and Diane Laundy
Douglas and McIntyre
ISBN 978-1-77162-241-7, Sept 2019, Paperback – Trade, 80 pls, $22.95 CAD

Some years ago an aspiring artist approached me to see if we could co-publish a book of my poems and her illustrations. Turned out she didn’t like the poems I offered her, and wanted me to write to suit her pictures. Since none of them inspired me, the project never got off the ground. Consequently, I was very interested in The House the Spirit Builds, an 8″x 7.5″, 80 page, a soft cover book that combines poetry with photography. Reading in the flyleaf that “renowned poet Lorna Crozier offers a masterful collection of poems inspired by Diane Laundy and Peter Coffman’s photographs…”, I realized that in such a project the graphic art must come first and that the poet chooses images that speak to her. Presumably Crozier looked at the work of the two photographers and selected the pictures that she found most compelling.

The three creators came together at the educational retreat centre Wintergreen in the Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve, a nature conservancy. The Frontenac Arch stands at the junction of the Canadian Shield terrain with the St. Lawrence Valley in Central Canada. Crozier has spent most of her life in western Canada. Born in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, she now lives in North Saanich British Columbia. She was educated at the Universities of Saskatchewan and Alberta and is a professor emerita of the University of Victoria.

Writing this review in the middle of a central Canadian winter, I noticed only one photo of blue shadows on snow, and none of the brilliant winter days, striking sunsets and tenacious birds that are the best features of winter here in the Ottawa area. I was surprised at this absence because the two photographers are from Ottawa. Also, since the book is about “spirit”, I wondered about the lack of references to the effect of dull snowy spells on the psyche, or the uplifting effect of the bright days. Perhaps photos of the beautiful sunny days are considered a cliche, or possibly Crozier’s choice of photos reflects her familiarity with the more temperate but often rainy west coast.

The accompanying promotional material says that the poems are “inspired by nature”. More accurately, they are inspired by the photographers’ depictions of nature, with nature broadly defined. Several poems are very indirectly about the natural environment, such as “Fit”, about a stack of colourful bowls, and “Breakage”, inspired by a smashed china salt shaker. Several others, such as “Glass Vase, White Table”; “Key I and Key II” and “Teacups on a Windowsill” are about nature in the form of light and shadow.

Crozier sometimes finds nature in surprising things. She says, of “Key I”, “perhaps it is not a key but a long-thoraxed praying mantis about to grow legs and walk away.” Of Key II, she writes: “Is it called skeleton because it unlocks the mystery of bones?” Here “nature” is human nature, the human mind’s ability to free associate and make connections. In the case of “Drop”, the poem beside a picture of raindrops on grass, the poet follows Ezra Pound’s well-known advice to “Make it new” by providing a novel take on rain: “Rain stops falling but hangs around like the shape of lust in bed sheets… the bedroom funk, the drop caught in an eternity of now before an insect alights on the stem and sips.”

Not all poems surprise the reader. In “Not Giverny, But…”, a poem beside a photo of lily pads and red leaves, we are told that the image “conjure[s] up Monet” – surely not a highly original observation. “Three Oranges in a Red Bowl”, a poem about joy and kindness, presents a teenage summer romance in sunny Italy, in which the boy’s mother, who knows that “by fall it would be over”, calls the young woman “bella mia” and rolls an orange in her hands “to make it sweeter” for her.

Another accomplished poem, highly relevant to our times, is “Prayer”, which appeals to readers to value all of nature, from the “white-footed mouse” to the “predators who hunt on wing and paw… Pray, oh pray, for the snowshoe hair and the little brown bat.” Today, when all species are endangered by climate change, this touching poem is a call to action.

Crozier, an officer of the Order of Canada, has authored many poetry books including one nominated for the Governor General’s Award. Diane Laundy, who lives in Ottawa, Ontario, has been a photographer for over eighteen years , with work in private and public collections and exhibitions in Almonte, Kingston and Halifax. Peter Coffman, also an Ottawan, is the author and photographer of Camino (Wintergreen Studios Press, 2017) and photographer of Exploring the Capital. This collection shows that a writer need not experience nature en plein air in order to craft poems relating to it.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta, a member of the Ontario Poetry Society, has published several chapbooks and well over a hundred individual poems in periodicals ranging from the Glebe Report to Our Times. In 2017 she won first and second prizes in the Ottawa Canadian Authors’ competition. Some of her poems appear in her novel The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa. Baico. info@baico.ca (http://ruthlatta.blogspot.com)