Elisha May Rubacha: Too Much Nothing
Apt. 9 Press, 2018, Ottawa ON.
$10, ISBN: 978-1-926889-29-0, 28 pages
Reviewed by Scott Cecchin
Elisha May Rubacha’s chapbook Too Much Nothing finds itself orbiting memories of Roberta Bondar (scientist, astronaut, photographer, Canadian hero…) and the speaker’s own life and girlhood. Rhythmically, the book’s sequence moves back and forth between the two, focusing one moment on Bondar’s public life and work, and the next on the speaker’s private life in rural Ontario. By blending these two, separate lives together, Rubacha asks that we see the relationship between the two; and, importantly, what that relationship makes possible. At its core, Rubacha’s book is an exploration of relationships – relationships that are at times destructive, at others life-affirming and full of possibility.
We see this at work on the spread between pages 10 and 11. On the left we’re given a poem about Bondar – which combines a quotation from Bondar herself, with a factoid about her time in space – titled “seeing the world as one planet like that, I realized no one has a right over any other person”. The poem, in full, states that “while in orbit / Roberta could see without her glasses”. The poem on the right-hand side of the spread brings us back down to earth (and to the speaker’s own childhood), but through its title – “observatory” – tells us that we are again focusing on how we see the world. The poem’s speaker tells us this:
it’s been years since we tested my science classroom paper astrolabe
behind the house
but my stepfather and I
still call the clearing on the hill
Across this page spread, the poems – occupying separate realms – speak to each other and through each other. On the right, Bondar transcends the Earth and its limitations, and finds herself caught by a wisdom she hadn’t seen before: not only can she literally see clearer in her privileged position in space, she also acknowledges that life on Earth must change. On the right-hand page the speaker remembers her time as a young girl, when, playing a scientist, she stared up into space with her astrolabe – perhaps (we might imagine) at the very moment Bondar was staring back down to Earth. The speaker’s own experiments with science and technology mimic the model that Bondar provides. And she names the hill the observatory: her own, personal mythology blending with Bondar’s. But Bondar is more than just a role model here: she is also a source of wisdom.
This question of how we see the world – and the type of relationship to the world this seeing generates – is spread throughout the book. The poem “brain science” brings us back to rural Ontario. The poem’s title, once again, connects this scene from the speaker’s life with Bondar’s own work – in this case, her work as a neurologist. Here, we are told that
I was told
of the mind
causing bad thoughts
caught by things
Whereas “observatory” above shows how technology can be used productively and playfully to create possibility, here technology is limiting what is possible by creating “ruts / of the mind”. The entrenched forms of thinking these ruts represent are difficult to change, as the poem’s ending warns us: “we nearly flipped [the tractor] once / trying to level the packed earth”. Rubacha’s poems offer an alternative, first by acknowledging the relationships in our lives that are unjust, and then moving on to a wisdom that emerges through both the speaker’s and Bondar’s experiences.
Rubacha is at her best here when she uses the musical elements of language to help communicate her themes. In the opening stanzas of “brain science” above, the repetition of the consonant “t” reflects the mind’s inability to escape its well-worn, problematic ways of thinking. This inability to move away from the consonant “t” reflects our own inability to see the world truer, clearer. These stanzas also scan with many stressed syllables, giving them a stilted cadence, itself suggesting a sort of imbalance. This combination of music and serious meditation is a sign of Rubacha’s keen ear and craft.
And what of the wisdom that Too Much Nothing points us toward? In “model rocket”, the speaker, looking at Bondar’s photography, says that “it is possible to zoom in / on the black spots in the salt flats / until they are buffalo”. Similarly, Rubacha asks us to zoom in on those aspects of life that are easily passed over – with a particular focus on the lives of girls and women. Rubacha, using collage technique, tells us that “’Bondar spends hours tidying up shuttle’ / - was a real headline in the Toronto Star in 1992”. Without telling us what to think, the poem points to the injustice of the media’s relationship to women. And in “canadian shield” we witness the speaker experience sexual assault in a room full of people where “no one […] noticed”. Here, Rubacha focuses on what was ignored, once again asking us to reconsider human relationships and their effects – in this case, the relationship between men and women.
Like all proper poetry, Rubacha’s book demands that we speak the world truthfully. And she does this well. Her poems ask us what is possible for girls and women here on earth, and how we might reimagine those lives; she muses over technology, and its ability to either enhance or limit our thoughts; and finally, she asks us to assert our stories in the face of “too much nothing” – those forces in our lives which seek to erase what is true and what is possible, whether it be men, mosquitoes, or black holes.
At her chapbook launch, Rubacha stated that she hopes this collection will grow into a full-length book. If this comes to be, it will be worthwhile to see where she takes the story of Bondar and her Earthbound speaker. But it should be noted that Too Much Nothing feels thematically and poetically complete unto itself. And, thankfully, her poems have been given the respect and integrity they deserve through Apt. 9 Press’s thoughtful craftsmanship.
Reviewer Bio: Scott Cecchin is a Peterborough writer and poet. His poetry has been published by The Steel Chisel. He is also a college instructor, teaching courses in English and environmental issues.