The Arts: Poetry               The Times Colonist             Nancy-Gay Rotstein

The well-pruned poem
Writer condenses complex ideas into a few simple words

Liz Pogue
Times Colonist
June 9 2002

Poetry, says Nancy-Gay Rotstein, must stand the test of time. It must speak to the present.

For her latest collection, she says, she has selected the works from over the past quarter century, come of which have appeared in earlier publications although many are not previously published. And, to be included, those poems must speak as loudly now as they did when they were written.

Some resonate even more loudly.
Of The Age of Aquarius, she writes:

They gave up one love;
replacing tenderness with
honesty enough to sting
and bruise the most trusting

It takes time for trendy new ideas to percolate through society, and it's interesting to have a poet remind us of those trendy ideas now that we're living with the results.

The poems in this book, Rotstein says, "speak in the universal desire to connect with family, with nature," and poetry "helps us handle the tensions of the scope and speed of change."

And poetry is good only if "it has an effect on somebody, if it has meaning for them."

Her poetry has meaning for a lot of people. Rotstein was surprised and gratified by the huge turnout for her book launch at the University of Toronto.

Her poetry also has meaning for Irving Layton, who wrote the foreword to the book.

Rotstein "sees things as they are," he writes. "She has the ability to see beyond or through appearance. Rotstein has put her living to good use; life has not been wasted on her."

Sometimes she is startled by the effect her poetry has on readers or listeners. She recalls giving a reading at the National Library in Ottawa, a reading that began with the poem Carousel.

lithe Lippizaners leap toward storybook stars
exposing golden hoofs,...
golden haired, the lady
sidesaddles gelding
and cradles the enlarged head
of her dreamy, droop-lid son,
fragile frame pressed secure;
his face, glowing,
is haunting in happiness...

After the reading a stranger had come up to her and remarked that he'd read that poem in Queen's Quarterly and had it framed. Rotstein said she assumed the man must be a poet - who else would frame pieces of poetry? But no, he was a psychologist whose patients included a handicapped lad not expected to outlive his parents. -

The psychologist was holding the poem to comfort the parents should the worst happen.

"That's just an example of how poetry can touch lives," Rotstein said.

But she isn't thinking about touching lives when she's writing. She says that to have the passion and intensity, she has to write the first draft of a poem when an idea strikes, and usually carries a notebook for the purpose. But the craft of poetry is as important to Rotstein as the art. She'll return to her poems again and again, perhaps over several months, trimming anything that isn't absolutely essential and polishing what's left.

The key to goo poetry, she says, is "economy of language plus the cadence of music."

Her work is usually done in the solitude of her rural Ontario home, and she feels those Canadian vistas of snow and water influence her poetry.

"How I write about Canada is as a Canadian looking at Canada," she says, pointing to a score or so of poems collected under the group title The Equinox. These poems have a distinctly Canadian theme.

In View From a Hill, she describes the snow - "ski-doo and ski tracks scratch their long white fingers across its albino skin..."

In Columbia Icefields, she describes "granite-stained craters chiselled from green ice..."

Other sections cover her experiences in China (Eastward); her travels to other parts of the world (Borders) and finally her family life (Cycles).

The poems in this last section, though written over the years, haven't been published until now. The section begins with a description of a sleeping infant, "mouth quivering with dreams," follow the growth of the children - "you too grow, camouflaged by Blue Jay cap" - through adolescence to the time when the children are grown and gone, leaving the mother to walk "through memory of hugs and laughter."

Rotstein has something to say, and she says it well.

Nancy-Gay Rotstein © 2002