I never met Robert Billings. He escaped my poetic radar, but I was curious to read the posthumous book Before the Heart Went Down: Selected Poems by Robert Billings. This 138-page collection was selected by Sharon Berg and published by Cyberwit in 2020. Below is my recent review.
“There is a darkness/I try to tell you about–” (p. 14)
This first line in the first poem “Invocation” startled me. Was this summoning of a deity or the supernatural, an initial call for help?
Robert Billings’s Before the Heart Went Down: Selected Poems (Cyberwit 2020) is powerful and secret-revealing. It’s even haunting like discovering a sunken treasure of cracked hearts entwined with legends, bird feathers, familial memories, autumn leaves, poetic petals, and urban/rural knick-knacks saved from the drowning depths of a river-muse.
Not only was Billings’s corpse found in the Niagara River in the Spring 1987, but this gifted Canadian poet left the literary world with several chilling lines. For example, in his 1986 poem “Algoma Suite: Eight Ways of Listening to the Heart Catch its Breath”, he wrote “Some of my days have lived like cut flowers/in a jar.” (p. 74)
That same year, in the poem, “Along Benson Creek”, he penned “If you stand here long enough you can hear/rust flake in your bones…” (p. 79)
Wow and yikes! Perhaps, I’d been watching too many tv detective shows during the pandemic. Reading his brief biography and its mention of the unexpected 1986 disappearance of this former Vice-President of the League of Canadian Poets made me even more curious about his work and the possible reasons behind his alleged suicide.
If that doesn’t send shivers down your back, note the ghostly red photo of this poet eyeing you from the book’s stark black and white cover. Descriptive colours and the absence of hues seeped like “a tipped colour box” (p. 85) throughout this 138-page collection. For example, in “Van Gogh With His Eye On A Bird”, he wrote, “Yellow paint is a way of saying what is possible” (p. 84) and in the poem “Black”, he penned “This is black, the other colour of the city” (p. 107)
Personally, I had never heard of Robert Billings prior to the publication of this book, and I suspect many younger or emerging poets won’t be familiar with his work either. Poetry wasn’t part of my radar back in the mid-80s but many deceased poets like Sylvia Plath have had their work immortalized.
Now, thanks to Canadian poet and Big Pond Rumours publisher Sharon Berg, more readers will soon discover who Robert Billings was. Let’s say, she brought his work back to life by showcasing his best poetry in this latest collection. Several established writers and poets including Michael Clarkson, Bruce Meyer, Cathy Ford, and James Deahl wrote glowing blurbs and comments for the book.
I describe its contents as a melancholic rain-induced séance swimming with rich metaphors, strong poetic voices, and insightful lyrical notes. Most of the selected poems were written over 35 years ago between 1977 and 1986 but Billings’s themes of relationships, mortality, rural landscapes, and urban environments are still pertinent today. The poems are gleamed from six of his poetry collections: blue negatives (1977), The Elizabeth Trinities (1980), A Heart of Names(1983), Trying to Dream for My Son (1984), Northern Poems: Where the Heart Catches Its Breath (1986), and The Revels(1986).
Initially, I found Billings’s earlier work sparse and simplistic, but the chronological presentation of his poetry accentuated his development as a poet with his later poems becoming more surreal and metaphorical as my reading progressed through the collection. Re-reading each section of free verse enriched my enjoyment of the book as I discovered more layered meanings and linked themes.
For example, water (in all its fluid, icy, and cold forms) was a major character in this collection. In the 1983 poetry suite “Epiphanies of the First Cold Day” he wrote “This is my persistent nightmare//I jump into a shallow river/My feet sink in mud to/mid-calf, the top of/my head just/ breaks the surface//It’s November/Too soon for ice/to preserve me” (p. 48)
A few years later in his 1986 poem “Algoma Suite: Eight Ways of Listening to the Heart Catch its Breath” he penned “And that dive:/the water taking my body without question,/my lungs listening to a new story of my breath” (p. 72-73)
This obsession with deep heartfelt matters and the cracks that rattled him seemed to permeate the book; this motif tied in neatly with the collection’s title.
As Billings wrote in his poem “Migration”, “The heart accepts one small crack at a time”. (p. 43) Later in his “Fruit Cellar Poems” he added “A melody cracks/these concrete walls Soon/I believe I am wings and dust” (p. 58) In “Open Winter”, he inked “You say the heart, like the bird,/is a black knot of muscle/on a fence post” (p. 87)
Not all his poems are dark. There are numerous tender moments when Billings used the image of hair and/or hands to express his deep love for an individual. In the poem “Breathing” he stated, “White flowers on the blue quilt/Shine like your hand in the dark” (p. 110)
Also included in this book are twelve previously uncollected works from an unpublished manuscript called The White City Poems (1985-1986), a prologue and lengthy epilogue by Sharon Berg revealing her close relationship with Billings, and an essay “Not said, the tears when Robert went missing, but this can be said…” written by Cathy Ford, president of the League of Canadian Poets in 1985 and 1986, and a founding member of the League’s Feminist Caucus in 1982. Four black and white photos provide some nostalgia for those who knew him.
As a final note, I wish to express how difficult it was to judge/review a collection of selected work without first reading the titles in which the poetry originally appeared. Because many of these books are either out-of-print or difficult to obtain, I had to trust the compiler’s judgement and accept the selected work as a stand-alone project. That is what I have done.
In conclusion, Before the Heart Went Down is a fitting tribute and celebration of one poet’s life by a former girlfriend and current Canadian poet who cared enough to preserve Billings’s literary legacy.
In his poem “Flowers at My Father’s Funeral”, Billings described the petals of a yellow rose at a funeral as cheerleaders: “cheerleaders/I think/cheerleaders doing cartwheels/in the name of that dead god”. (p. 46)
As future poetic gods and goddesses, we would all be so lucky to have such a hardworking and talented individual like editor Sharon Berg championing and cheerleading our work.
A virtual discussion, reading, and presentation of Before the Heart Went Down appears on the Robert Billings Poet Memorial Page posted on YouTube.
Robert Billings (1949 to 1987) was a Canadian poet with six published works including The Rebels launched by Porcupine’s Quill in 1986. He was the highly respected editor of Poetry Canada Review and was serving as Vice-President of the League of Canadian Poets when he disappeared at Halloween in 1986. His body was discovered in the spring 1987.
Sharon Berg writes poetry, short fiction, novels, and she authored an academic history of First Nations education in Canada that won a 2020 IPPY Award. Her poetry is published by Borealis Press, Coach House Press, and most recently by Cyberwit (Stars in the Junkyard, July 2020). Her short fiction Naming the Shadows (Porcupine’s Quill, 2019) appeared in 2019. She also founded and edited the international literary E-Zine Big Pond Rumours (2006-2019) and Big Pond Rumours Press, which published the winners of bi-annual chapbook contests.
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