Poet Mark Abley faces down Pinocchio, other ghosts in new book

Montreal’s fascinating history, ethno-cultural mix, older neighbourhoods, architecture, and geographical setting make it a city for poets.

Mark Abley, best known as a language columnist for The Montreal Gazette, non-fiction author, and acquisitions editor at McGill-Queen’s University Press, should be much better known and celebrated as a poet.

His latest work, The Tongues of Earth (Coteau Books, 115 pp) is a collection of poems in which Abley reflects with alternating wonderment, irony, and, in varying moods, on the world around him, and our place in it, with word choice and imagery that combine a unique cadence.

In As If, he observes a moment at pre-dusk when a cat brushes by and a bird “tentative, explorative” begins to sing “as if/any god worth its salt/would create/music before light.”

As a child, Abley was terrified of the Pinocchio story ­— the one before Disney doctored it. He wrote a seven-part reflection, a series of haikus ending with how he’d rework the tale:

Allow him his raucous innocence,

his rude brand of fun.

Allow him to keep his father

If Geppetto accepts a son

who may not follow orders

and won’t be whittled away

by anyone who sees pleasure

as the herald of decay

In a bitter reflection, Hard on You, the poet is savouring the delights of a Vermont cottage vacation when he hears a neighbour lecturing his son, “almost 12” but misbehaving and deserving to be labeled “a–hole.”

“You know I’m only being hard on you because I love you” concludes the mountain moment.

Abley is not only troubled by the inexorable demise of languages — 600 of the 6,000 languages still spoken will not survive by the end of the century, he writes in Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages — he’s saddened by the disappearance of species.

At the Redpath Museum, he sees a preserved Labrador Duck, with the inscription, “Not seen since 1875. Presumed to be extinct.”

“Presumed, indeed!” he responds, and noting a nearby “brace of passenger pigeons,” equally extinct, hears the duck contrast its caged and stuffed condition with that of the poet/observer.

So here I stand: preserved, and catalogued, and webbed,

a trophy of your deadly skill, while you –

still free to taste the wind and weather,

peering in at me as though I had the answer

to some query on the tip of your tongue –

recede into the growing past.


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