How Poems Work: Nora Gould’s ‘While he waited for the school bus’

By and | 1 December 2014

While he waited for the school bus’ is just one example of the extraordinary work that defines Nora Gould’s new book. Steadfastly observant, carefully detailed and with the capacity to twin trauma and beauty, Gould’s debut collection represents some of the finest regionalist writing in recent memory. This is slow poetry, a poetry which invites quiet consideration, a poetry of the wind and rain, fieldnotes written in a pocketed notebook during calving season. As with the example poem above, you’ll find little reliance on the egotistical sublime, or lyrical escape, the poems here deal with the rural honestly, poetically, and without trying to importune any sense of transcendence to the experiential.

The division I am working towards defining here is the division between rurality and rusticism. Taking cues from John Kinsella and Rosanna Warren’s dialog ‘Southern Winter and Northern Summer of 2007,’ which appeared in Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics 6 [(2007): 236-267, 242], I think that the honesty that we sense in Gould’s work stems from an adherence to the rural, to a practical conception of pastoral in which the codifications for living and consuming in close proximity to the land is played out. Whereas, if Gould had been working in reliance on inherited Romantic assumptions we would we would be more likely to ascertain in her work the construct of rusticity, the fetishisation of conditions of rural control and corruption; the fetishisation of power relations which dictate the transformation of nature into the pastoral.

This division, I believe, is intrinsic to an ethical and honest representation of the pastoral, the manner in which Gould has documented the travails of a family working the land. This is not a typified version of the past, well-worn through Canadian settler stories or inherited from European models, but an articulation of life lived, which details the attendant artifices of rural control and the often graceless details of the everyday. The poem above, ‘While he waited for the school bus’, is a complicated, tragic story. The poem sutures the loneliness and contempt for nature that some children are trained to accept, with the realities of hard times. The poem’s opening stanza details the commonalities of ‘the neighbor kid’ remorselessly killing an animal and taking it to a fur trader. An economic exchange of the simplest sort: bait, attraction, slaughter, reward. The ideological dictates of control and contempt for life extend an account of the pastoral’s originating dominance: colonisation. These are a set of hierarchical power-relations built into the place itself. Colonial relations are further reinforced with the second stanza’s ‘Russian Thistle’ blowing perilously in the wind, and brings to mind a scene from Ken Burn’s The Dust Bowl. This stanza, removed from the narrative of the poem, is a compelling reminder of our homesteading ancestors, and paints the landscape with a sense of unease and uncertainty.

The only sense of Romantic association in the poem is instilled in the third stanza’s capitalised phrase ‘Prairie’s cold distillery’, which speaks to the manner in which reality plays against reinforced expectations of pastoral life. Certainly Gould has issued this as a challenge to the reader’s common assumptions about pastoral life in an ironic cast. Acting as a fulcrum in the poem, the capitalised ‘Prairie’ precedes a changing season, in which the subjective ‘child’ commits the final act in the poem. The details given in the fourth stanza’s opening documents the time of year as well as provides a sense of colouration to the scene, the weasel has moulted its seasonal fur, a passage, a camouflage, with which to remain hidden. The weasel’s seasonal return and its ability to remain hidden provide a counterpoint to the child, the poem’s subject, who is suffering from overt exposure. A neighborhood child carrying a gun and a buck-knife to the road-side bus shed, waiting, as the wind smirrs dust down the horizon. The instruments of violence held close. It is with a deft gift that Gould relates to us the subject’s final act, unexpressive, factual, almost undisclosed. The child’s suicide is only ever foreshadowed, its weight remains the hanging, undisclosed secret that the poem foretells. The poem’s final act reveals the complexity and complications of pastoral life, the personal, adolescent trauma of living within rural expressions of power. The poem’s final act hangs over the reader, leaving them to consider the disjointed impact which divides Romantic conceptions of the rural with the realities of prairie life.

In the spirit of Robert Kroetsch, Gould has provided us with a glimmering example of honest, ethical writing. I consider it amongst the finest rural poetry I’ve encountered in years, and believe that in offering readers this viewpoint Gould has belied the expectations and assumptions of the capacities of regionalist writing.

Here the poem is again:

While he waited for the school bus

The neighbour kid plugged a coyote, 
.22 long,
roadkill deer for bait,
a calf dead from pneumonia when that was gone.
Twenty-five bucks for a frozen coyote,
didn’t have to skin it.

Russian thistle tumbled down the fenceline,
caught, loose, caught, pushed before the wind.

He waited in Prairie’s cold distillery,
narrowed his eyes at the weasel’s black-tipped tail,
the moon low in the sky.

When the sun rose east-northeast
and he’d moved his jackknife
from his insulated overalls to his jeans,
he picked off gophers ’til he saw
the dust plume of the bus.
No carcass to hang on the fence.
The same weasel, black-tipped tail,
white fur shed for brown,
slipped around the old wooden granary 
where the kid stood his gun
butt down on the two-by-four sill,
clip hidden above the lintel.

‘While he waited for the school bus’ from the collection I see my love more clearly from a distance by Nora Gould, published by Brick Books.

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