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Yaw by Dani Couture. (Toronto, ON: Mansfield Press, 2014. $17.00, 64 pages) Review by Jenna Butler.

Yaw is a fascinating collection—part general examination into the grieving process, part specific homage to one disappeared person—that demands multiple readings. It’s a deceptively slim book: you can read it in one sitting. It’s in rereading, however, that one catches the careful nuances of these fast-paced poems.

“Hail Mary” gets the collection off to a terrific start, the strong first-person lines setting a decisive tone for the exploration of personal grief that is to follow: “I am both the unanswered phone and the caller untethered. / I am the turned back to the Hail Mary pass / in the last seconds of the final quarter.” The gorgeousness of this book lies in its curt lines, the way they swing on exact details that nail the poems perfectly into place: “A body propelled / through molared window. / We all have places to go.”

Couture at her best is a master of capturing the larger event—death, a storm, an argument, a troubled relationship—and pinning it into place with a handful of brilliantly selected words. Each of her poems is an exercise in simultaneous speaking and listening, turned inward to the event, while also speaking to the outer world. This is evident in the poem “F-scale, Ohio.” Here the storm is both real, and a metaphor for grief: “How / in 74, the sky turned its face toward us, bowed / down, and blew the town out like a wish.” Couture’s words offer the gut-punch of grief precisely observed, and the reader buckles: “The heart / is a small, chambered abattoir until it’s not.”

What is arguably the strongest poem in the book comes early and sets the bar high. “Fact Check,” a list poem, internalizes the police procedure following a death and plays it out again through the way in which one turns facts over and over again in memory. “did he tell you he loved you?” it begins. “did he refuse to give you back your key?” What starts as a review of an apparently complicated relationship slides sideways into an unexpected death and the many ways of managing absence: “did you drink morning rye from a cold coffee mug?” … “did you hold water in your mouth but not swallow?” The curt questions are destabilizing, mimicking the way we self-interrogate following an accident or a death, questioning whether something truly happened the way we remember it. This is the courtroom cross-examination writ small, the minutiae leading up to a death that afterwards form the only map for finding our way back out. “did you lose your taste for sleep?” Couture wants to know. “do the dead walk in your dreams? / do they call you? / do the dead still call you? / Thank you for your time.”

The few failings in this collection are easily forgiven in light of the overall excellence of the book. These minor poetic slip-ups include Couture’s tendency to rhyme too closely, or to play too often with approximate repeated sounds (“The curve of the cumulus, slant of swampish sidelight, the strain / of weeds alongside the route, familiar but not familial”). Sometimes Couture slips into repetition that dulls the lines: “we slept heavy, / draped across one another—a litter, / leg-tangled, sleeping” and “Hump shouldering south before / coming back round, the cancelled / spring hunt pushes one kind / of hunger farther south.” This is puzzling, since Couture is normally adept at saying only what needs to be said. Still, these issues are minor when compared to the usual decisiveness and precision of her language.

Yaw is a gorgeous read, slim but challenging, demanding a close eye and
frequent rereading. Couture looks into the heart of grief and captures
clearly whatever stares back, “The moments we catch ourselves reflected
in paned glass, / avoid the eyes of what’s missing. What never made
it back.”

Jenna Butler is the author of four books: On the Grizzly Trail, Seldom Seen Road, Wells, and Aphelion. She teaches creative writing at Red Deer College and lives with three resident moose and a den of coyotes on a small organic farm in Alberta’s north country.

This review was published in issue 11:2 “Speed.” To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum‘s website.

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