On this page, Reviews from:
- Quill & Quire
- Locus Magazine
- Emerald City
- A Leap in the Dark
- David Fraser
Review by Robert Wiersema for Quill & Quire
Canny readers can be forgiven for being suspicious of a slim collection of poetry from a successful mainstream novelist in mid-career. Such books are usually either vanity projects, efforts of a publisher to please (and retain) an author with a wandering eye, or some combination of the two. Any readers assuming this of Beyond This Dark House, the debut poetry collection from noted Toronto fabulist Guy Gavriel Kay, risk depriving themselves of a pleasurable reading experience. The poems in Beyond This Dark House, selected from decades of work, are varied and far-reaching but unified in their skilled presentation and close attention to detail. Ranging from the elegaic to the humorous, from the mythic to the wistful, Kay’s poems are polished gems, the product of an artisan rather than the dabblings of a dilettante.
The opening poem, “Night Drive: Elegy,” which follows an autumn drive through Winnipeg neighbourhoods and into the narrator’s past, sets the mood of the collection – twilit, solitary, and infused with longing. Throughout the book, lovers meet or part or yearn for one another across continents and time. Friends, family, and lovers die. Beyond This Dark House is a valediction, a mapping of the terrain of a life marked in fleeting joy, heartbreak, and change. Many of the poems mirror subject matter familiar from Kay’s fiction; the underlying humanity and visceral reality of myth and legend. The volume includes reflections of Arthurian myth, the Orphic cycle, and of numerous other mythologies, humane and unaffected in their treatment. “Guinevere at Almesbury” is an encapsulation of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle and the loss of Camelot told from the solitary perspective of Guinevere, ensconced in a convent. It is a moving approach to a familiar story, similar to Kay’s revisionist treatment of the same triangle in The Fionavar Tapestry. Kay is also keenly aware of his reader, and many of the poems play with the relationship between reader and text. Like any good poet, Kay loves language, and his word choices are always appropriate in sound, sense, and feeling.
Review by Tim Pratt for Locus Magazine
Thanks to Locus for allowing us to reproduce this review here. Not only that, but we have a special offer from Locus – 13 issues of Locus for the price of 12 – and the 13th is the one featuring GGK on the cover, with an interview and a review of Lord of Emperors which came out a couple years ago. You can also order just that one if you like. Here’s the link, exclusive to Bright Weavers.
Guy Gavriel Kay is best known for his fantasy novels, including trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry and The Sarantine Mosaic duology, but he is also an accomplished poet whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals (though mostly before he began writing fiction). Now, for the first time, a selection of his poems has been collected in book form. In choosing the mostly-unpublished poems that fill this volume, Kay clearly attempted to select pieces that would appeal to readers of his novels, illuminating some of the same motifs and themes that appear in his prose work – notably a preoccupation with the past, and a tendency to ring changes on well-known myths and legends. It’s excellent poetry on its own terms, too, however, with no direct connection to his novels.
A streak of melancholy runs throughout many of the poems, as in “Guinivere at Almesbury”, in which the newly-widowed wife of King Arthur thinks back on her affair with Lancelot with mixed nostalgia and regret: “We cannot be other than/ we are. I loved two men. A kingdom/ broke for it. Something fell that was a star./ We cannot be other than we are.” In “Being Orpheus” the story of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld and his subsequent return becomes a metaphor for anyone who cannot help but look back when it would be better to move forward, and “Medea” explores the quietly devastating roots of Medea’s later infanticidal tendencies. “Cain: The Stones” concerns the life of the first murderer in the years after his crime, burdened with regrets, trying to care for his children.
“Hades and Kore” is a deceptively simple poem, in which the complex nature of the lord of the underworld is explored through perfectly-chosen images and lyrical phrasing: “Summer is not my season,/ sunlight and water not my elements./ November is my favorite month,/ almost my name.” Other poems are less serious, such as the hilarious “At the Death of Pan”, which seems to be from the point of view of some supernatural party-planner, faced with the unprecedented task of arranging a funeral for a deity: “There will be royalty so/ it does make sense/ to have a score/ of maidens immolated/ to be on the safe side.” “Various Things” depicts a dark, possibly supernatural character “with a propensity for alleyways” in a rare moment of mercy. “Tintagel” describes the crumbling castle in Cornwall, reputedly visited by Merlin, and makes it both the setting for a kiss and a metaphor for time’s relentless march.
While many of the poems use the trappings of fantasy, or at least allude to myth and legend, others are mainstream, and no less effective for that. The long opening poem, “Night Drive: An Elegy”, is a reminiscence about the speaker’s hometown, his father, and the way memory shapes perception; it is exquisitely nuanced, every word chosen with care. “A Narrow Escape” amusingly – but seriously – explores the strange tendency of some writers to spend more time trying to find the right words to describe life than they spend actually living it.
Kay has a true gift for crafting language, and the poems in Beyond this Dark House are the distillate of that gift. If you love his novels, or just love finely crafted poetry, this is a worthwhile read.
Review by Alma A. Hromic for SFSite.com
If there is a single impossible thing in writing book reviews, it’s writing a review of a book of poetry — simply because poetry is so absolutely subjective, so utterly dependent on individual tastes. And those tastes literally range from dumbstruck awe to a reaction along the lines of, ‘If the Secret Police picked me up, all they’d have to do is make me sit there and read poetry and I’d tell them everything they wanted to know…’ In between those two extremes, there are the fine gradations — the people who love classical sonnets are turned off by gimmicky modernistic stuff, and the people who like to think of their taste as post-modern and progressive tend to dismiss the older stuff as clunky and rhyme-heavy.
Guy Gavriel Kay is far better known for his fantasy masterworks than he is for any other aspect of his craft — and yet it is as a poet that he had made his mark long before he met success as a novelist. Perhaps not enough people knew this, although I venture to guess that many suspected, given the lyricism that pervades his prose. Given that I think that Kay belongs in the first rank of writers of any age and any genre, and given also that I have a guilty secret that I love both reading poetry and writing it myself, I cannot help but giving this slim volume of Kay’s poetry a very high score.
Kay’s images are translucent, his poetry modern in form and yet with an instinctive and innate classicism which speaks to me. He just happens to paint pictures of places where I too have walked — Tintagel, for instance — and vividly invokes my m
emory of them through the prism of his vision. He writes a poem for J.R.R. Tolkien, and makes me think of the time I made the pilgrimage to Oxford to pay homage to that great man. In prose and now in poetry, Kay has a gift for making something real; reading his poetry is like lifting a seashell to one’s ear and hearing the distant echo of the ocean where it was born. He writes of love, of legends, of people he knew, of places lost and rediscovered. These are things familiar to all of us. Our paths may be different but our landmarks, whatever form they may take for any individual person, are very much the same. We read Kay’s poems and see ourselves. He may not have written about any one particular crossroad, but we recognise his description of it. He has that gift.
Beyond This Dark House is a book which may not appeal to everyone but it is proof that Kay is so much more than just another writer. He is a poet.
And I will continue to treasure his work.
Painting with Words
Review by Cheryl Morgan for her online magazine, Emerald City. Reproduced with kind permission
Any collection of Canadian SF&F authors is incomplete without mention of Guy Gavriel Kay. Sadly Kay’s new novel is not due out until next spring, but he does have a collection of poetry available. The book, Beyond this Dark House, is only published in Canada. It is available from the Amazon.ca web site and presumably they will ship anywhere. Copies will doubtless also be available from the Torcon dealers’ room.
This is the first poetry collection I have ever reviewed, and I’m not entirely sure that I am competent to do so. I enjoy epic poetry such as Coleridge, and I definitely appreciate a good haiku, but much modern poetry leaves me cold. As for the stuff that gets included in formula fantasy novels, well, the less said the better. Thankfully Kay’s poetry is easily understood, even by a novice like me. It doesn’t often have formal structure and rhyming patterns, but its meaning is generally clear, and frequently haunting.
Much of this, of course, is down to Kay’s skill as a fantasist. There is nothing quite like mythology for bringing the reader out in goosebumps, and poetry seems to be an excellent form for doing this. So many of the poems in the book have mythological themes, sometimes blatant, other times subtle and concealed. One of my favorites from the book is a poem called “Tintagel”, which nods its head to the vast depth of Arthurian legend surrounding the location, but acknowledges that the sea was there first, and will be there, still uncaring, long after Arthur is forgotten.
Many other poems are about love: about fleeting moments, about desire, about pain. Poetry is good at this, and again Kay has the talent with words to make his point succinctly and powerfully. Sometimes, of course, the poems are about both, for they treat of Guinevere or Orpheus. In both cases Kay does not judge, but merely asks us to understand. “What else could he have done?” he asks of us about Orpheus, and goes on to illustrate the agony that the bard must have gone through before his fateful glance. For Guinevere he finds reflection, an ocean of regret, but no apology for love.
I am learning how to live with this.
I thought of dying more than once.
The last time, the night that Arthur died.
Not since. We cannot be other than
we are. I loved two men. A kingdom
broke for it. Something fell that was a star.
We cannot be other than we are.
from “Guinevere at Almesbury”
Although most of the poems are raw with emotion, Kay is not above an occasional dose of humor. I particularly enjoyed “At the Death of Pan” in which some poor court flunky tries to work out an appropriate ceremony for the funeral of a god. “There are no rules for this,” he cries despairingly to his assistant, “Precedent is somewhat limited.”
So there we have it: triumph and disaster, tears and laughter, such is the stuff of poetry. But more important is the artist’s command of his tools. Guy Gavriel Kay is a master of words. Enjoy them.
Review for Rambles.net
Review by Jenny Ivor for the online cultural arts magazine, Rambles. Reproduced with kind permission
Guy Gavriel Kay is an internationally acclaimed author, renowned for his fantasy writing. Those who are acquainted with his work will know that his prose is poetic, and that poetry and music feature strongly in all his novels. It therefore comes as no surprise that he should now also prove himself to be an accomplished poet, or that the poems he offers are powerful, beautiful, intelligent and evocative.
The book is divided into five parts, the third part devoted to poems that present many varied aspects of classical mythology in a fresh new light; Orpheus, Medea, Psyche, gods and goddesses inhabit these pages, and Kay’s word-craft brings elegant revelation and uncanny comprehension of the world that once was theirs. He writes of the timeless tragedy of the Arthurian legend, and as Guinevere, he emotes such sorrow and duality of love the legend seems to become real. “We cannot be other than/ we are. I loved two men. A kingdom/ broke for it. Something fell that was a star./ We cannot be other than we are.” He has an unsettling gift at blending sorrow and joy, beauty and grief — it is a strong cornerstone within the fiction of his novels, and it surfaces time and again in his poems, both abstract and deeply personal. Even if the reader is not familiar with the myriad of Kay’s educated references, the poems breathe in their own right: old, cold marble, mosaic figures and myth brought to life by his stylish and insightful words.
The first poem in the book is titled “Night Drive: Elegy” and is a phenomenally powerful work. Readers feel that they are with the poet, back running through his childhood, now driving in the present, at the poet’s side as he acknowledges his memories. The seemingly effortless, narrative freestyle draws one in to this elegy with deceptive casualness, and I was taken aback to find tears blurring my sight halfway through, streaming down my face in empathy. Despite his grief, there is still the beauty of expression of a life lived well in love. “No one/ ever born had hands I’d rather feel/ enclosing mine. Then. Now. The day/ the son we named for him was born.”
He travels — Crete, Cornwall, Wales, Northumbria, Oxfordshire, Croatia, Canada — and we travel with him, privileged to vicariously experience the Greek dawn, the English rain, the azure Mediterranean and the white spray of the cold sea crashing against Tintagel. We span the seasons he has witnessed, deep midwinter snows, falling autumn leaves, summer haze, the changing quality of the light between the countries. Much of the work in Beyond This Dark House is retrospective, it gives the feeling sometimes of a considered life, carefully wrought memories, yet at intriguing odds with this transient impression is an undeniable blazing vitality and impelling force of reaction to circumstance, situation, person and place. The places are usually associated with his feelings while he lives or visits there — acquaintances met, an absent friend, a much-missed lover — which naturally brings a particularly personal nuance to these poems.
Many of the poems in the other sections concern love — but I hesitate to call them love poems, for fear some prospective reader may dismiss them more lightly than they deserve. These are poems of infinite sensitivity, some sensual and delicately erotic; some portraying the destructive fire and feisty impossibility of relationships; some with dark, edgy undertones. He puts these complex and sometimes difficult emotions under the microscope of authorship, paring down words and exposing the feelings, not just of himself, but the women who have touched his life. He creates still pictures and small scenarios with clarity and precision, and one builds up a picture of the author as a man not easily swayed, but deeply affected when moved by emotion. I find it impossible to quote sparingly from even one of these poems, to do so detracts from the perfection he has made of the whole; there are astounding, exquisite phrases, words of passion and extraordinary tenderness: treat yourself, buy the book and read them in entirety.
I feel sure that Guy Gavriel Kay’s fans will buy Beyond This Dark House solely on the strength of their confidence in his proven preceding literary triumphs. For those who do not already know the quality of his work, I enthusiastically encourage anyone with even the remotest inclination toward reading a poem to dip into this book. Once you have opened the cover, I hope you find your emotions under the spell of this master word-crafter, and remain as entranced as I. This book is a gift in which to lose oneself again and again.
Review for A Leap in the Dark
Review by Richard Marcus for his Book and DVD reviews website, A Leap in the Dark. Reproduced with kind permission
I always feel slightly uncomfortable reviewing someone’s poetry. Unlike reviewing a novel, where you can make relatively objective comments based on how well an author has established characters or developed the plot, poems have to be judged on how well you believe the poet has communicated something far more ethereal. Just because you are not impressed with how a poet has chosen to express him or herself, does that necessarily make it less valid that a piece that you approve of?
Unlike previous generations where poetry was confined by meter or structure, the free verse of today can’t be judged by a poet’s ability to maintain a complicated rhythm or include the right number of syllables in each line. It doesn’t even matter if the words make “no sense” when you read them, as its their ability to make you feel that’s important. You can’t even set one poet’s work against another to see how it compares. Poetry is such an individual matter that there is usually little or nothing that one can use as a basis for comparison.
What I usually end up with is an attempt to judge how successful the poet has been in either expressing an overall emotion or feeling with his poem, much like an abstract artist would with his canvas, or in recreating the moment in time that he or she was inspired to try and capture with the poem. While it doesn’t prevent me from being subjective in my critique, at least it gives me something objective to consider.
There are some prose writers whose work tells you that they would be equally adept at writing poetry as they are at fiction. It’s not that their work is poetic, more that they have an ear for creating imagery when they write. A good indication is when you read their work you are able to see in your mind’s eye what they are writing about with little or no effort on your part. This doesn’t mean they spend page after page writing descriptions of the scenery, in fact it usually is the opposite. The prose writer with the potential to be a good poet would be one who can use the fewest words possible, yet still imbue a scene with beauty and emotion.
Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay has always impressed me with his ability to evoke whatever atmosphere he desires in an apparently effortless fashion. He is equally adroit at bringing to life sumptuous scenes in royal courts as he is the horrors of a battlefield, and like a good painter, knows exactly when to remove the brush from the canvas so as not to mar the image with too much detail. Quite a few of his novels have contained either poetry or song, so his readers have been given hints as to his talent as a poet, and in 2003 he published a book of poetry.
Penguin Canada has now re-issued that book, and Beyond This Dark House is now available in a paperback edition for those of us who missed out on its original release. I have read all of Mr. Kay’s novels, and have found them to be almost uniformly excellent, but they have also shaped my expectations as to the nature of his work.
Having expectations is probably as bad as making assumptions about somebody’s work, as they can sometimes have little or nothing to do with reality. In this case the only expectation that stands up is that the poetry in Beyond This Dark House is as good as Mr. Kay’s prose, but it has a style and flavour all of its own. While his novels are intricate and elaborate puzzles, resplendent with detailed characters and vivid locations, his poems are far more austere while not surrendering an any of the intelligence or depth of his prose.
One poem that I keep coming back to as an example of the differences between his work in the two genres is “The Narrow Escape”. The poem sets out the details of how a woman was fortunate enough to avoid marrying someone who already had someone he loves more. The man in question was a poet, and his mistress who he loved most was his poetry. But there is a wonderful bite of irony to the poem that makes you wonder about the women and what she thinks love is in the first place.
You see, “Because he was such as could spend a whole night, centuries from sleep, crafting a poem to reclaim the afternoon when they first met, she fell in love with him. But when he actually did so…” It’s all very well and good to be sensitive and poetic, but if I’m not going to be the centre of your attention all the time, you can’t love me and I don’t want you. Imagine, leaving me alone in bed so he could get up and write about me? …”she burst into angry tears, crying: “How could I not have seen how destructive you are?”
While this poem is a nice piece of satire, Kay can also write some beautiful descriptive poems. In the third part of the book he has collected a number of poems that he has written based on various characters from literature and myth. What I liked about them was that he created pictures of them that fit the character perfectly. “Malvolio” is about the uptight butler of the same name from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night.
He is the worst sort of puritanical prude, and in the poem he compares the fun that other characters are having to the fires of hell. He flees back to his austere, cold room, where he cleans himself of the stain of their sin with prayer. Then he falls into the sleep of the righteous and has dreams about himself and the lady he serves, the duchess. “My room is cold, my anguish sharp as icicles. One day trumpets will proclaim our victory. I salve my heart with prayer…I walk amid gardens of precisely trimmed hedges where she awaits me, unveiled and alone. My garters are yellow as I sigh my way back into splendour.”
Kay has created the perfect character study of the repressed Puritan, who on the surface is all proper and prim, but he’s just like everyone else underneath it all; a normal human being with desires. In both “Malvolio” and “The Narrow Escape” Kay shows that he has knack for creating intelligent and witty poetry that is sharp and to the point. He is able to describe those moments he wants to tell us about with grace and style and no small amount of humour.
Of course there’s more to his poetry than what these two examples offer; he is still a master of imagery after all and he uses it to great affect on quite a few occasions. Yet for me the example provided by these two poems is sufficient proof that he is as capable of communicating in verse as well as he does in prose. Beyond This Dark House answers the question as to whether Guy Gavriel Kay would make a good poet or not with a resounding yes. For those of you who have liked his prose and are fans of poetry I encourage you to pick up this volume and experience another side of this wonderful author.
Review by David Fraser
Review by David Fraser, originally appearing on his website here. Reproduced with kind permission.
Years ago I was captivated by my discovery of the Fionavar Tapestry and read the trilogy with as much zeal and fervour as I had read the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. So a collection of poetry by Guy Gavriel Kay was both an intriguing surprise and a curious exploration. The collection divided into five parts is really an amalgam of personal memory and reminiscence with historical and mythological significance. The poems in Part 2 focus more on personal love as an analysis of loss and separation. Love is always at a distance. The male lover is often either writing a poem while his lover wishes him in bed with her or he is on the balcony searching for himself. The poems in Part 3 evoke the well-known myths of love and loss; Guinevere at Almesbury, Orpheus in the underworld trying to retrieve Eurydice, Medea struggling and tormented, Cain and his tormented soul, Hades or Kore and the annual capture of Persephone, The Lady of Shalott. Generally through these poetic constructions of mythological point of view, we arrive at the same themes of loss and separation which are found in the more personal poems.
Perhaps the title poem, “Beyond This Dark House” with its flowing cadence that carries the reader along as on a rhythmic journey, encapsulates what many of the poems in the collection are revealing.
“We’ve all had
fantasies we shaped.”
“shadows thrown two ways.”
There is a coming apart. “A train running away”. In Canadian literature so many trains are always leaving prairie places, such as Winnipeg, ; they are escape routes, destinations for dreams and fantasies. The shadows thrown both ways from the street lights are just that, but they also evoke a metaphor for separation, movement in two different directions.
“I will ask only that
we may each be whole
together or apart.”
These lines speak to a thread for the entire collection. This statement is what many of the poems about separated lovers , both personal and mythological, are asking for in their different ways – a sense of peace one has at being whole, and complete with oneself.
In “Other Women and You” the poet separates his love from all the rest who he could say goodbye to with lines like “Too deep the knife/you have become.” “I wanted you so much, / shaken by the tenderness in me / for you…” There is a wonderful cadence that carries the reader into this tenderness and the raw pain of the departure.
In the poem, “Following” about a lover far away, we get exquisite lines such as
“I wouldn’t follow.
And so I am entangled
in a promise I must break,
which evoke this painful separation that seems to pervade much of the work as if it is a separation of the real world with all its distractions and all its lovers, from the artist who must attend to his art. Certainly the allusion to this theme is present in the short poem, “Shalott”.
“I must ride past,
not at all myself,
you must look down, the mirror…”
This is a modern response to the dilemma presented in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot”; the dilemma that faces artists whether to create work about and celebrate life or enjoy the world by simply living in it. It is the choice between the reflection and the real thing. In “This Falling Tower” we can see the struggle of the artist in the world and the artist reflecting on the world. The poem evokes the cold distancing of other poems about separation, the writer contemplating on the balcony while his lover sleeps in “After the Ball” and the writer in “A Narrow Escape” who drives his lover away eventually by always being up scribbling lines late at night when she needs him in her bed.
“he scribbles fiercely
in a shaming infidelity, searching
for a word to give her eyes, a voice
for her voice, while she wakes
alone, and calls him to her, and
he does not come.”
In “Power Failure” a poem of short, short lines, winter’s cold creeps into a man’s lonely bed now his lover is off with someone else. The narrator asks, “so who will / now candle / me home?” We feel the sadness and the emptiness of his loss for “all winter / all (his) life.”
In “Reunion”, Kay captures the sense of awkwardness between lovers. “…we breathe / a brittleness into each other,”, “… fearing / the demands of silence, / unsure if we are safe.” This imagery too emphasizes each person’s need to be at peace, to be whole, to be safe within oneself, safe with each other – a need not often met it seems in the pages of these narratives. In “Annotation”, the poet asks love for “a harbour / safe from time” and plays with a classic metaphor cum cliché of the rough and rocky route of love but makes it work with
“I can say, nonetheless,
that the falls
Shake you pretty good,
In the mythological poems we find a great dramatic monologue by Guinevere after the death of Arthur as she recounts her feelings for both her lovers. “Being Orpheus” approaches the sad tale of Orpheus leading Eurydice from the underworld through the eyes of the omniscient narrator. We find lines such as
“Light was so far ahead it was a prayer,”
“The silence was a weight upon his life.”
And stanzas such as
“And somewhere now there was a song.
With words of loss to gather even Sirens
Into stillness and the harrowing of grief
And a music that had never been before.”
These lines carry the poem along with such eloquent measured cadence that we are right there daring to look back, just to turn ourselves to see if she is there.
Kay says here in this poem what is so much a part of the entire collection, as a song of loss.
“Being Orpheus. A song of loss to break
the hearts of beasts, to break the grip
Of earth on stone, to bend the starlight
Streaming to the world.”
There are so many losses. The poignant raw outpouring of remembrance for his father and for growing up in Winnipeg expressed with so much raw honesty in the opening poem, “Night Drive: Elegy” is a type of loss created by time. Similarly “West Hanney, Churchyard” speaks in somber tones to the passage of time. “Rain begins to fall from a heavy sky / Touching a long world done in grey.” In “Tintagel” we see the sea pounding away at the castle. This relentless grinding continues to wear even monuments and perhaps their mythologies. Places aren’t the same when you go back to them. West Hanney in a poem dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien has a loss of meaning for the poet.
“I don’t think I’d stop for long.
Papers and books
Realized that place for me
And they aren’t there any more.”
It is not just the content of the poems that captivates the reader but it is Kay’s facility with the rhythm and the sound of words; some of them leave you breathless and yearning for more and more. Who cannot hear in “Crystals” that screen door bang across a lane or “a late car / on the street” in remembering the moment of a lover’s first touch, so heart piercing.
“I felt the bone and
cartilage that held
Or know in a visual way how “the sea’s sound might shape itself / into your name…”
or in “Re-Reading Over St. John’s Hill” hear the lilting flow of Dylan Thomas’ Welsh vowels, or in “A Few Leaves” appreciate the structural simplicity reminiscent of a William Carlos Williams.
Beyond This Dark House is a moving collection that is deeply honest that evokes both emotional and intellectual responses from the readers. Within the pages you hover in a mélange of rich modern and ancient longing.