November 4, 2013
Review By David Stouck
Kuldip Gill’s Valley Sutra is a posthumous volume, assembled by the author shortly before her death in 2009. This vibrant, accessible collection with its “iridescent shimmers” is also divided into two parts, with the author’s personal memories very much the focus in Part 1. There are poems about being one of the “mill kids” (members of Gill’s Punjabi family owned and operated lumber mills in Mission), about days at school under a sadistic teacher, a summer job at Aylmer’s Cannery, and wandering the local ravines and waterways. There are poems about the habitat – a stream that is forced to go under the town – and about the fauna of the region, particularly the birds. But they are imagined in the romantic way. Wild swans, through gunshot smoke, mount to heaven. An eagle, rising, plummeting, and circling in the sky embodies the poet’s turbulent aspirations: “I am your sibling, twin / Wait for me. I buck your blue / sky, perform my dives … In dream / I fly as you” (33).
In subtle ways, these are also poems about race and seeing with other eyes –Mount Baker appearing as volcanic Kali (an incalculable godling indeed); the speaker’s humiliation in school learning about the black hole of Calcutta (“guilt written all over my face”); the enigma of the Indian boy who does not know who he is: “I was born in Kelowna … I’m adopted” (57). But this theme of forlorn identity has its most poignant figure in the speaker’s mother, whose homesickness is triggered by the scent of certain flowers, the oil of citrus skins, the lament of an old man who is mourning family. The mother only appears occasionally, but she haunts this book with her confusion and “big-eyed stare,” as do the transplanted forms of poetry and storytelling – the sutra, the ghazal, the “Ah mere vaht” (That’s my story) that signals the end of a recitation.
Surprisingly, given the differences in these books, Part 2 of Gill’s collection performs a parallel function to Roberts’ collection by grounding Mission in the local history of Bill Miner and the first great train robbery. But this story also serves – in Gill’s words – “to treat Miner as a Zen cowboy ghost” (94-95) and, from among several speakers in dialogue, including Bill’s horse, to present Amer Singh as Bill’s “agent in life for the rewrite” (62).
By Kuldip Gill
Madeira Park: Caitlin Press, 2009. 96 pp. $16.95 paper