Holding the Dark
by Melanie Cameron
Winnipeg: The Muses' Company, 1999, ISBN 1-896239-47-1, 111 pp., $12.95 paper.

In a recent interview in the jazz magazine Downbeat, trombonist Steve Turre recalled a listening session with the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Echoing others who knew that unbounded musician, Turre suggested Kirk's prodigious hearing and blindness were connected more deeply than the cliché about other senses becoming more acute when one is removed.

Melanie Cameron hears exceptionally well. The poems in Holding the Dark begin with a woman who has to live for a while without sight. Such darkness here is velvet. The dark that keeps "pieces of her / eyes, and left / itself behind, little drops of darkness, / scattered across her retinas / like black stars" quickens the blood and hones the senses -- "One steamy word, a name / damp against the roof of her mouth, a fragment / of a dream that stayed / warm in her gut, never found / its way to her head at night, tongues / of breeze licking / her ankles, sucked / inside as she uncrosses, recrosses, / her thighs, the moisture / a man releases into the dark."

Holding the Dark is divided into groups of poems (each of which appears to be untitled; they are listed in the table of contents by their opening line). In the first, Between Dream and Open Eyelid, the Winnipeg-based Cameron explores the nature of sightlessness, and how there are other ways of seeing. Her words come through the skin, elegantly yet so naturally that this is more absorption than formal reading.

Succumbing is easy. The poems in A Spoonful of Rain and Purple Flowers take shape warmly, flowing as if of their own accord -- "When the birds wake, they fill / the sky with their songs, trails / of bubbles, crossing, floating / away. You can't / catch them. And sometimes, when the birds sing / all at once, the sky fills / with coloured ribbons, loosely / entangled, rippling. / They cannot be drawn / straight or apart." The stream of her consciousness flows, nonetheless, around the solid contours of stories.

The poems in The Daughters of Silence are pulled raw from harder experiences, many of them in South America. "Let me disturb you," she begins. What follows is violence -- both random and institutionalized, physical and subtle -- and what that violence has done to those who learn to live with it. Here, for example, is "a little girl, so well-trained she / hikes down her diapers so / daddy can touch." Yet there are tender moments as well. By a sewage-tinted cardboard home she warms to the "Little girl with rubber boots / half-way to your knees [...] peeking out from behind / your mother's skirt, making / little-girl faces at me."

We talk of people weighing their words. Cameron does that better than most, by balancing the eloquent and imaginative with the plain and punchy. The stories continue and build, leading -- via meditations on a painting of Shakespeare's Ophelia, who finds new life beyond the script -- to a graceful, heartening conclusion. Holding the Dark is a feast.

Randal McIlroy is a Winnipeg writer.