Those were just some of my feelings as I emerged from the pages of Talya Rubin’s first published book of poetry. Whether it’s scrambling over the rocky face of Scotland’s St. Kilda Island, reflecting on her anorexic years in Montreal or tracing the thread of a very personal existential journey through Greece, Rubin provides a powerful, ruminating text that gives no quarter:
Do not reconcile yourself to the hopelessness of your situation, or you will be defeated. Look neither up nor down, neither straight ahead nor behind you. Imagine you have eyes all over your body. It is not your responsibility to choose which ones to see out of.
Rubin doesn’t run from thematic exegesis, she invites it. The principal tension throughout the book is between the desire for community and the final insufficiency of place. Driving it all, the threat of extinction, personal and communal, as in her opening title poem “Leaving the Island”
We’ve all gone now, left the place to the sheep
and the gannet, the puffin and the wren
Beauty is not the operative power here - “slender necked majestic birds, mythical white” and a “sky so thick with gannet you resemble white ash” quickly give way to images of brute necessity. “Birds all hammered on the head and thrown down to sea.” Here and in later poems the confrontation between nature's fierceness and human ingenuity is laid out in harrowing detail.
Men suspend themselves and poach you from your sea stack nests
dangle from cliff faces, their only implement a long stick
with a noose at the end to scoop you by the neck and snap it there
above the depths.
More than a hundred years later these long departed presences on St. Kilda, Scotland give way to the spectral figures of their descendants seated in the café of a colonial Australian town also named St. Kilda. 'Outside, skinny pairs of women walk by...always going to the beach or coming from it/in their neon colours, their electric smiles." Inside the cafe, dreams of escape from an island morph into a malaise of failed desire.
The men at the table don’t even look up.
They talk until the piece of furniture they sit at
floats out to sea; their vessel, their only home.
The hair on their heads the one thing visibly receding
and the horizon, that too, drifts away.
But more than anything the speaker’s own capacity for feeling – or lack of it - is at issue here. The sole antidote to spiritual exhaustion is the discovery of new places, new beginnings. “This island is calling your name," one poem ends. "This is where I will begin," ends another. On the Greek island of Santorini, Rubin is shown how to carry water to the donkeys in the field, what herbs in the garden to water and what to do when the household gas gives out. “This is how you will live,” the owner tells her.” But always her new beginnings bend towards extinction.
The walls are peeling, but paint is expensive these days, and the rain will wash it away eventually, and the walls will collapse eventually, and this island will reclaim itself eventually and there will only be donkey paths and no small bells will ring, because that will be the day the donkeys own this island and nothing will hang around their necks.
At best any optimism Rubin possesses occupies a middle ground. In perhaps too obvious an allusion to Eliot, she writes, “I see things, fragments/that add up to the future.” Like Eliot, Rubin’s default is instinctively tragic. Human interactions are perfunctory displays of tolerance and non-emotion. Places are temporary and almost always under existential threat. Outside of death, solitude is the only perennial.
For readers who like their poetry served a la cart and lightly flavoured Rubin’s true saving grace will be her enormous capacity for poetic expression. Yes, her themes are substantial, but it’s her technical ability that sees us through: her attention to the interweave of diction and syntax, using the simplicity and directness of monosyllabic lines to describe brute existence on St. Kilda:
No tree to cut to build a boat, a chair, a bed
peat and straw instead and mud and rock
Her quiet pacing and willingness to let her readers hover a bit over an image before introducing another.
We left our Bibles open and handfuls of oats on the floor
Locked our doors behind us.
And an ability to collapse whole histories into just a few lines.
but the white Polaroid edges
can barely contain us in the frame.
My father is behind the lens,
one foot already out the door.
The poetic sojourn into someone else's culture is as old Homer. Too often these have become an excuse for avoiding the complexities of our own, a short cut to seriousness without the disadvantages that come with self-knowledge and self-declaration. Talya Rubin avoids these pitfalls through a large, empathetic imagination and an ability to immerse herself, without presumption, in places not common to her - or our own - daily existence. We are all better for the encounter.
Leaving the Island by Talya Rubin, Signal Editions, 2015. Ed. Carmine Starnino. $18.00