Words From Another Language and Place: Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person

sheep'sThis collection of poetry ended up on my list because I purchased it two years ago and had meant to read it but did not. However, in hind sight I’m sure that I had my eyes on my future dissertation on Toronto. Eirin Moure’s Sheep’s Vigil By a Fervent Person is a transelation of the Portugese poet Alberto Caeiro’s O Guardado de Rebanhos. Alberto Caeiro was a heteronym, an imaginary character created by a writer to write in a different style, of the Modernist Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa. This slippery bit of authorship only became clear to me about halfway through the book and is, intentionally I think, not explained. I use the word transelation because this is what Moure likes to refer to it as. In the forewrod she writes that “I want this book to be judged not just as my poetry but as translations of Pessoa” (ix). So, Moure’s collection is a response to Pessoa’s pastoral poems written under the heteronym of Caeiro. She transplants the poems from a Galician context to a Toronto setting. This act of transposition created a number of interesting resonances for me as pastoral countryside melded with Toronto’s urban landscape and Garrison Creek, a watercourse long buried under the city’s concrete, comes alive as a subject. Moure might be called a “difficult” poet in the sense that she plays with form, language, and genre. She is a postmodern poet who calls Sheep’s Vigil her “simple book” (ix).

The poetry itself is incredibly engaging. The collection has the original Portugese poems on the left and Moure’s transelated English on the right. It provides an interesting way of reading the poems as you can visually see where Moure has added lines and note the closeness of her translations. I don’t speak Portugese, so I could not tell you if Moure translates word for word. Her poems address her residence in Toronto on Winnett Avenue near Vaughan Road. She (or Caeiro?) has a keen eye for the grass, creeks, trees, and birds in the area so that the city is not so much an unnatural space as one integrally located in the natural world. Garrison Creek is a subject for many of the poems even though it is buried, and her poems give it a new sense of life.

The cycle of poems also presents an interesting argument in that Caeiro is a materialist. He does not believe in anything beyond the material world so that many of the poems present the world as it is. There is no mysterious or transcendant Nature behind it. As she says in “On one of those crazy clear days”: “I saw that there is no Nature,/ That Nature does not exist,/ That there are mountains, ravines, prairies,/ That there are trees, flowers, grasses,/ rivers and stones/ But no Great All unites them” (7-12). This poem comes near the end of the sequence which is a conversation or argument concerning the natural world and our relationship to it. It is a complicated and intricate cycle that I’m not sure I fully grasped. However, I do think that this book of poetry is going to end up in my dissertation because of the way the natural world is just the natural world.

As for the poetry itself, the poems are a kind of ongoing conversation between a speaker and an unknown listener. I’m guessing this links back to the pastoral tradition that Caeiro is writing in. They are never obscure or difficult even though they carry some very weighty ideas. This collection has a thematic unity that Mary Oliver’s collection did not even if it meant that reading it took a little longer and more work than usual. The art of longer forms of poetry is one that is rather neglected, yet Moure does some great things with this.

I would recommend this book for people who live in Toronto and know Garrison Creek. I would not recommend this book for people who do not already love poetry.

Moure, Eirin. Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2001. Print.

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