Past Imperfect
by Suzanne Buffam
House of Anansi Press, $13.95 (paper)

“If only the body / could make up its mind,” Suzanne Buffam writes in her elegant debut, Past Imperfect. This sort of wry and watchful, bodied consciousness haunts the collection. It questions our sense of ourselves as thinking and feeling beings inhabiting a world overwhelmed by the inevitability of both loss and grace. Playful self-inquiry is often the mode. Buffam’s speakers constantly search themselves for strange populations, gentle metamorphoses: “There you are checking your ankles for wings,” or, “In the waves, my skirt rose up and made of me / a shape I couldn’t take on shore or keep.” This wonder represents the speaker’s searching attentiveness, but it is more than a mere instance of being alert to a moment of loneliness or delight. Rather, Buffam appears interested in the distinction between being absorbed by loneliness and the clarity of feeling that comes from looking upon oneself at a distance as a solitary being, as one thing among many. Consider the way in which birds remind the bard not that she is feeling something, but that they are the very texture of her feeling in the prose poem “Please Take Back the Sparrows”: “They are not sorry. They are not singing. Many they are one they are never not somewhere. They are not not singing. They are not slack . . . They scatter thinking. They are not asking or telling they are scattering thinking they are shivering. They are awake or they are shivering.” For her subject she zeroes in on the ways in which her inwardness can take form and meaning in the world, and that inwardness is treated with a cautious pleasure: “My voice has been described as nondescript, yet I continue to use it . . . I call to hear the sound of my own voice.” Though Buffam’s speaker regretfully admits in one poem, “There is how I feel, and there is this hurtling surface. It is impossible to say something true for all time about either,” this sort of vigilant deliberation is what makes for the book’s charged and intimate music.