From Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, 20th-century British literature has been rich with comparisons between life and the changing rhythms of the sea. These metaphors – which present life as a force that undulates unexpectedly between calm and chaos – have left clear impressions on the mind of Canadian poet and literature professor Richard Greene. In his newest collection of poems, Boxing the Compass, Greene describes the challenges of middle age within the metaphorical framework of sea travel.
Described by Montreal’s Signal Editions as a “collection of midlife reassessments,” Greene’s book surpasses the expectations laid down by its publishers with the bits of universal wisdom it has to offer. The book’s poems, which were culled from the past 25 years of Greene’s career, aspire to more than the meditations on toupées and fast cars suggested by the term “mid-life.” Taking William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot as inspiration (both of whom, incidentally, wrote past the age of 50), Greene broadly adopts the human experience as his muse, addressing such timeless themes as love, death, and spiritual rebirth.
Though Greene is perpetually towed back to the original site of his investigations – his home province, Newfoundland – his poems deliberate the problems of existence in places all across the continent. Writing from his home on Sherbourne Street in Toronto, or the back seat of a cab in Massachusetts, Greene vividly situates his poems in their environments, encountering in each location the extensions of his inner self. Sitting on Newfoundland’s vast “acreage of solitude” in “Utopia,” Greene finds himself worrying about a life “drifting endlessly apart.” He then echoes this concern in “Over the Border,” where he desperately attempts to outrun the “heaviness of shapeless time” in the streets of Austin. Repeating these sentiments across various geographies, Greene’s remark in “Utopia” that “There is nowhere as strange as now,” seems of an elevated wisdom.
Death figures prominently in Greene’s collection. In several elegiac poems, he reticently recounts the glory days of now-deceased family members and friends, as well as the “shipwreck” of their final hours. In a poem dedicated to poet Peter Levi (1931-2000), Greene contrasts the writer’s impressive career with the rather mundane unfolding of his death. He writes, “I saw him staggering in a lane beside the Bodleian, the finest poet/I will ever know, lost in a place/where he had spent half his life” – and abruptly concludes – “I did not see him again.” That death occurs quite blandly and unexpectedly is one message Greene offers in his work.
His collection ends, however, on a much more redemptive final note. In the last poem of the collection, Greene writes admiringly about a family of ducks swimming in a pool by the Washington Monument: “They paddle crazily among the remnants/of winter, the mud and the rotted leaves/casually insisting on what comes next.”
Greene’s appreciation of the sight of these unassuming creatures charging “casually” toward life is the final optimistic affirmation of his book. Greene’s apprehension of mid-life as a metaphor for a journey at sea lucidly perceives the connection between life’s experience of being in medias res and being suspended in a body of water. Both are characterized by a floating feeling – by a sense of being neither here nor there, but on the way to somewhere. Greene’s courage is his hopefulness in the face of this ambiguous motion. As the years chase him down, Boxing the Compass certainly lets us know Greene will still be found insisting on what comes next.