Sweet by Dani Couture, with its candy stripe cover and carnivalesque font, has a saccharine veneer that implies this book may be both immensely satisfying and regrettable in its intensity. However, Couture’s second volume of poetry manages to delight without overwhelming, and Sweet has a complexity that extends far beyond the notes detectable by our mammalian taste buds. In this work, Couture does not savour the Sweetness of anything. She explores instead the act of longing, and how desire leaves one vulnerable and exposed to the unforeseen.
Tension between city and country dominate the book, but rather than mythologize one side (as is often the case), Couture weighs and measures each with the same scrupulous, unsentimental eye. Commuters, sullen teenagers, and suburban homeowners are studied as dispassionately as gulls, bears, and weather. Couture opens the book the sweeping pronouncement: “I cannot love you all and won’t.”
Indeed, the narrator of Sweet is almost always outside the frame, ambivalent, observant, judging (or aware of judgment being passed), aware that something is lacking, aware of an irony no one else sees. The use of third-person “you” proliferates here, and at times creates an intimacy with the reader; at other times it feels accusatory or evasive and resulted in my retracting. With Sweet, I longed at times for more interior-ness in the narration: the way rush hour crowds and expansive wilderness both can cause a person to dissociate and begin to reflect lucidly about their own existence. But, the externalized focus we hear in Sweet is key. The voice admires the inhabitants of these cleaved worlds – specifically because they are at such ease within their reality, so unquestioning of themselves. The voice aspires to achieving the same kind of peace.
One of Couture’s most compelling themes is of injury and accidents – outcomes that occur due to proximity and circumstance: storms, fractures, bad timing, one creature’s needs and desires buffeting against another’s. In “Fair Game,” Couture highlights the barbarism of animals who have broken into and raided the cottage: “…a door torn off its hinges / a signature carved into counter.” But we, too, are motivated without questioning the impact of our desires: “I picked the already thin / blueberry bushes clean / and for a year afterward / the bears roamed hungry — / picking off campers in crisp red tents.”
Bears are a recurrent motif in Sweet, and are an effective metaphor: In all their ferocity, they are simply doing what comes naturally. In “Ninety-Six Stitches,” Couture anthropomorphizes the bear’s reasoning behind an attack: “It’s her fault / for being so pink /perfect young / and running.”
With its fable-like qualities and hawk’s eye view, I wanted Sweet to resolve firmly, to solidify into stiff, whipped peaks: I wanted it to impart some kind of parable, or survival skills, but of course all of that would cut too clean. Toward the end of the book, in the title poem, we are advised: “the bears want not / the honey, but the bees. Carry a swarm / in your pocket to meet the beasts you meet.” However, the final poem, “Dinner in the City” ends with guard completely down, uncertain, alone, and reflective. It is a messier and less heroic ending than being prepared to battle bars with bees. Yet it is much starker in its reality: “…my failed marriage: a final trip to the zoo, the grizzlies, our last fifty dollars….Driving down soft gravel roads. What forgiving fields will have me now?”
Dani Couture, Sweet (Toronto: Pedlar Press, 2010).
Paperbound, 79pp., $20.
Reviewed August 2011, for Arc Poetry Journal