When the day is nearly done, a review of Timed Radiance, by Donna Langevin

Reviewed by Louise Carson

Timed Radiance, by Donna Langevin (Aeolus House, 2022).

There are many examples of fine language in this collection of poems that have (mostly) been written as a summation of one poet’s long life. So, I’ll be presenting a lot of quotes. The first one comes from the first poem ‘Even with the Help of My Hearing Aids’.

…today when I hear the silent nickering

of four foals in the farmer’s field that kick

up their heels and nip and nibble spring,

instead of tears for my deafness I once licked

from my lips, I find to my surprise

I’ve learned to listen with my eyes.

     “nip and nibble spring,” so joyful! And it is with this optimism, surveying her aging body, that Langevin writes in part 1: Leavetaking. In ‘Waiting for Cataract Surgery’ she muses that she “will set out on a quest / to arrive at the best inner vision”. In ‘Side Effects’, left seeing haloes around light after the surgery, she says they “inspire me / to make my pagan life holy.” And in ‘Ode to My Skin’ come these two lines “Paper-thin, you become origami master / creasing me into folds intricate as an iris.”

     There are a few death poems, a few love poems, and even, a few that are just for fun. ‘Measure’ contains this thought: “If I were a thimble … I’d toast myself with dewdrops.” ‘One Tulip Less’ is about a wild turkey digging up and eating tulip bulbs in March. When he’s done, “His bulbous head blooming scarlet / he struts away on twin stems / toward a neighbour’s garden.” And in the poem ‘Late October’ I thought I heard echoes of Edith Sitwell in this: “Trees rattled dry / leaf-coins in night’s pocket.”      Part 2 of the book contains the title suite of ten poems, Timed Radiance, referencing the Toronto Lights Festival over several years of the poet’s viewing and interacting with art installations in the Distillery District. Many of the poems play with the transience of light and life. One of the poems ‘Laser Spider’ contained this:

The shuttlecock-wind

      shunts back and forth

            through the centuries


            luminous threads

while pigeons dream

                 in neon nests

      lodged in her filigree head

which I think gives a wonderful feel for the interaction between the historic buildings, the birds and the people looking up at the light-made spider. And in ‘Long View’ Langevin captures the visual artist’s statement with a few words. “A four-story tall / polar bear made from / welded car hoods” stops traffic. As if.

     Part 2 contains a few other poems, one of which, ‘Themble’, a word made from theme + pebble, is one of the nicest poems about writing I’ve read in a long time. It contains the words mind-pond and home-poem, and I think I’ll let you discover it on your own.

     The next section of the book, Losing Richard, has poems on the dying of Langevin’s ex. Again, Langevin tries to be positive and the experience peaks in the eighth of the twelve poems, ‘Now’, as his body is cremated. She’s glad they mended old hurts and were together at the end of his life, and the poem ends with this almost-haiku. “Looking through our window / you watched a winter sparrow / find refuge in its old nest.”

     Part 4, Elsewhere, jerks the reader away from the previous private drama and out onto the streets where wait homelessness, violence against women and terrorism. Yet it is in the middle of this section that the poet has chosen to insert the ephemeral ‘The Best Way To Eat a Snowflake’. The poem’s first line is its best. “Say grace”.

     Shoulder to Shoulder, the second-to-last section of Timed Radiance presents poems about the pandemic, which Langevin, sadly, spent alone. One poem ‘To the Anti-Vaxers’, subtitled after Dr. Seuss, stands out for its humour. “I would take it in my arm / I would take it in a barn”. And so on. Fun! Which we all need right about now.

     Part 6, There Comes a Time, is short, and celebrates, with some reservations, the coming birth of a grandchild, possibly Langevin’s first. She is filled with trepidation for its safety, a longing to know it, and a certainty that she won’t live to see it grow up. So, what does she do with all this emotion? She writes ‘As Birds Give Up Their Wings after a line by Meghan Sterling’, and gives us images in which she is the bird “Too tired to herald the sky” and her grandchild is “nestling inside your mother, / now the length of a robin,”. She hopes the child, besides carrying something of her forward, may, someday, read her words.

Timed Radiance, by Donna Langevin (Aeolus House, 2022).

Louise Carson has published two books of poetry – Dog Poems, Aeolus House, 2020; and A Clearing, Signature Editions, 2015. Her poems have twice been selected for Best Canadian Poetry, in 2013 and 2021. She also writes mysteries and historical fiction. She lives near Montreal.