A Dark Boat is the latest work by Patrick Friesen, encompassing a collection of brief, evocative works composed while traveling through Spain in 2005 and 2010. For a Prairie boy Friesen casts a shapely, realistic impression of the book’s Spanish setting; the country’s history is told in its dusty roads, sangria, and fadista singers. For a book dealing with death and darkness, A Dark Boat is surprisingly lithe. The imagery evokes the salty skin of desire, not the pale complexion of death.
In this collection, Friesen retraces Frederico Garcia Lorca’s final steps, visits the spot of St. John of the Cross’s spiritual crisis, tells Goya’s story and has a tryst with Ava Gardner. A two-time nominee for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award, Friesen has long been one of Canada’s most thoughtful, lyrical poets. Ever the Renaissance man, he has also spent a fair bit of time translating Danish poets like Niels Hav, writing plays and collaborating with musicians and choreographers. His sensitivity as an artist affects all his work in a profound and beautiful way. Like Denis Jonson, Friesen possesses an economy of words that imbues his work with a tacit and unnerving ear for description, “blood running down her legs/ she turns until her feet turn blue,” (Open Grave.)
The titular poem lays out Friesen’s theme. ‘A Dark Boat’ begins with this sparse detailing: “You are alone.” The poem goes on to describe a scene that is impoverished but rich with memory: “half-lit by the lamp/you have nothing/on the wall a poster/of a fadista you once heard.” In just these short lines, so much of A Dark Boat is foreshadowed. The solitary figure, the loneliness and the desire of an unnamed protagonist, an obsession with music, these are just a few of the shadings and colours that make A Dark Boat an exotic read. Friesen writes about a world that is “quiet” but teeming with emotion; this world is alive and “writhing” with lust, obsession, inspiration, suffering, and yearning. In some way, all of these poems touch on these themes.
There is a musicality to Friesen’s writing, a lyricism indicative of what the Spanish term “Deep Song”, a more somber stream of flamenco music. There are constant references to fado music, pianos, horns and Tom Waits, as Friesen probes the universality of music. Music becomes one of Friesen’s short cuts to the Spanish culture. Water, dance and death are the others in this exploration of cross-cultural obsession.
The poems are not frivolous but neither are they suppressive or overwrought by the darkness. Instead, the themes are the undiluted musings of an adult, contemplative, full of yearning and with an awareness of death.
Friesen is preoccupied with dancing, the motion of feet and legs. In his poems everything from walking and drunken stumbles, as well as the movement of dance, is associated with lust, struggle and resistance. This becomes the perfect backdrop for historically rich poems about Lorca.
Friesen explores the darkness of humanity without falling prey to dour clichés. “Only death listens to fear/only his body hangs on to him,” he writes in ‘Lorca’. In Friesen’s hands, darkness is elemental as water, doorways, shawls and music. He cannot conceive life without it but he does not allow that weight to bear down on his writing. These are not the tortured neurotic musings of a tormented high school poet. These are the rational observations and remembrances of a soul reveling in the substance of life.