A friend, facing a diagnosis determined as terminal, commented, “We all know we have to die sometime. At least I have a good idea of when and from what.” Fatalistic? Or merely a sign of maturity and acceptance? I’m not sure, but that attitude is exemplified in Richard Sanger’s final book. Even the title is apt: “Way to Go” – its double-meaning surely intended, a thought I defend with lines from a poem called “Ways to Go” – and again I suspect a double-meaning in that title. It’s a poem that tracks the doctor’s prognosis and ends with these lines:
So haul out the artillery, hook me up
and chemo carpet-bomb the rebel zones
into submission…All set? Here we go.
Divided into four sections, the first and last serve as bookends to the poems within. In the first section, we share his diagnosis; in the fourth section, we witness his farewell. But that’s not to say that the middle two sections are anything less than remarkable.
Besides working as a poet, he was a playwright, a ‘hat’ that’s in evidence in many of the poems. Dialogue, character development, forward-moving action, knock-out endings – all the makings of a piece for the stage are in evidence – in more than one of the poems. Maybe the best example of this is a four-pager called “The Ski-Doo.” Even without attributions, we know exactly who is speaking:
–Sorry, Mum, I was at the bridge
the ice is breaking up.
–But I told you to come straight home
and now we’ll have to rush.
The story related in this poem grows much more dramatic and exciting than a simple disagreement between a mother and daughter. I’m still wishing there’d be a short film of it, though maybe that’s not the wisest of wishes, as it presents a pretty wild and dangerous situation—one that even
Miss Singh, the science teacher, came
to film it on her phone.
But it’s not just stories that Sanger tells in these poems (though they are there a-plenty), there’s a wonderful musicality in much of the work, right down to the rhythm of the paddle invoked through rhymes in, appropriately enough, a poem called “Paddle”:
Oh I’ve sanded and revarnished its grain
to a lovely auburn shade—
red like my mother’s hair was red, red like a flame
you can douse in water again and again.
There’s a series of variations called “Spanish Songs,” each section of which contains what I can only call a song-within-a-song. Among his many hats, Sanger also was a translator; he relies on words from Lorca here. I imagine he was able to read that poet’s work in the original Spanish. The inserted ‘songs’ between stanzas (from Sanger) hold their own ring of ancient Spanish, as in this:
–My mother has a copper pot
she fills with her sorrows each night;
in the morning she gives it a shake
and out jump little grains of rice.
I’d be cheating if I didn’t at least mention two ‘if’ based poems in this book. Both are list poems, and the if’s they conjure fly high and low. Consider these ill-arranged samplings:
if we’re lucky, we might see a school of dolphins leaping…
if they hadn’t closed the wool mill, you’d still hear the horn at
quarter to eight in the mornings…
if I’m feeling better, I may come down the road to meet you
Only, I suspect he didn’t make it down the road for that meeting. As is often the case with so many talented souls, Sanger went too soon, dying from cancer last September. He clearly had more to do, as the final poems in this collection attest.
The first (second-last in the book) is called “Exit Interview.” No pretense here. All but one stanza begins, ‘Have you done what you came here to do?’ That’s probably not an easy question for any of us. But it’s a question he bravely posed in this book where he so openly stares death in the face, and lists the places he meant to visit: ‘—Santiago, Haida Gwaii, St. Petersburg’ and more. The poem closes with the line: ‘you meant to, went to go, wanted to, won’t.’
We should all be so blessed (and brave) to leave such a farewell as Sanger has. I am sure, especially with those just discovering him with this book, that many will realize just how much he’ll be missed.
About the Author
Richard Sanger (1960–2022) grew up in Ottawa and lived in Toronto. He published three poetry collections and a chapbook, Fathers at Hockey (2020); Dark Woods, was named one of the top ten poetry books of 2018 by the New York Times. His plays included Not Spain, Two Words for Snow, Hannah’s Turn, and Dive as well as translations of Calderon, Lorca, and Lope de Vega. He also published essays, reviews, and poetry translations.
- Publisher : Biblioasis (April 4 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 72 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1771965533
- ISBN-13 : 978-1771965538
Heidi Greco lives and writes in Surrey, BC on the territory of the Semiahmoo Nation and land that remembers the now-extinct Nicomekl People. Her most recent book, Glorious Birds (from Vancouver's Anvil Press) is an extended homage to one of her favourite films, Harold and Maude, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. More info at her website, heidigreco.ca
(Photo credit: George Omorean)