Nationality: American and Canadian. Born: Ruth Elizabeth Borson, Berkeley, California, 20 January 1952. Education: University of California, Santa Barbara, 1970–71; Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, 1971–73, B.A. 1973; University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1975–77, M.F.A. 1977. Career: Teacher of writing workshops and writer-in-residence, University of Western Ontario, London, 1987–88, Concordia University, Montreal, 1993–98, and since 1998 University of Toronto. Awards: University of British Columbia Macmillan prize, 1977; Canada Council grant, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1991, and 1994; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Literary award, 1984, 1989, and 1991; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1986. Address: c/o Writers' Union of Canada, 54 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M5T 2P3, Canada.
Landfall. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1977.
In the Smoky Light of the Fields. Toronto, Three Trees Press, 1980.
Rain. Moonbeam, Ontario, Penumbra Press, 1980.
A Sad Device. Dunvegan, Ontario, Quadrant, 1981.
Night Walk. Toronto, Missing Link Press, 1981.
The Whole Night, Coming Home. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1984.
The Transparence of November/Snow, with Kim Maltman. Kingston, Ontario, Quarry, Press, 1985.
Intent, or, The Weight of the World. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1989.
Night Walk, Selected Poems. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Water Memory. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1996.
Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei, with others (Pain Not Bread). London, Ontario, Brick, 2000.*
Critical Studies: "The Prose Poems of Roo Borson and Robert Priest" by Robert Billings, in Canadian Fiction Magazine (Toronto), 56, 1986; "Roo Borson" by Graham Barron, in Canadian Writers and Their Works, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, Toronto, Essays on Canadian Writing, 1995.
Roo Borson comments:
(1995) In recent years I've been interested in the interplay of physical sensation and memory; in how the fine distinctions of emotional nuance are encoded or enacted in speech; how rhetoric is made up of rhythm, pitch, tonality, atonality; how consciousness wanders musically.* * *
Roo Borson is one of the young Americans who went north to Canada in the 1970s to take a higher degree. She settled first in Vancouver, where the panorama of islands and snowcapped mountains are as spectacular and beautiful as the scenery of her native California. Later she lived in Toronto. A third-generation poet, she was in her middle twenties when her first book of poems appeared. Other collections followed quickly. At age thirty-two she won first prize in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's literary competition with "Folklore," which later appeared as a section of her 1984 collection The Whole Night, Coming Home. The book is an evocation of Borson's childhood in Berkeley. The sensual, almost mystical appreciation of the scents and the lush gardens and hillsides and the consciousness of another, working life going on in San Francisco, lit up across the Bay, and in Oakland, the industrial port to the east, invoke a world both beautiful and tough.
Memories of her parents, their love for each other and their children, and the solidarity of her family are luminously symbolized by her mother's beautiful garden, an exotic paradise inhabited by snakes, dogs, spiders, snails, lizards, goldfish, frogs, and, particularly, cats. Occasionally the cumulative effect is powerful. The sweep of memory carries the reader along until, in the last lines of the title poem of the last section, "Folklore," it is summed up:
And that which now comes alight, the house you grew up in:
sometimes it is a lantern small enough to carry before in
The Whole Night, Coming Home is also a chronicle of comingof-age in the California of the reckless 1960s, the world as seen from a speeding car full of flower children. The poems describe the comradeship of the adolescent gang, deeper friendships, and sexual and spiritual awakening, as in the poem "Sixteen":
She's seen it.
How the tomcat bites the scruff
of the female's neck so she can't get away:
you can hear it hurting her and still she wants it.
The girl doesn't want it though. It's not that
she wants. She wants the part he keeps to himself,
what's back of those eyes.
As Borson matured, her form moved from free verse to prose poems. Density of meaning and concentration of emotion make these later poems as effective, if not more so, than those arranged with varying line lengths and rhythms. There is a consciousness that observes and contemplates, a calm voice presenting the details that are needed for the same flash of understanding.
Borson is an avowed but gentle feminist who has said in an interview in the Montreal literary magazine Rubicon that she feels women have been conditioned to find their sense of worth by pleasing others and by acquiring men to look after them; boys, on the other hand, have been conditioned to build and do things. She is against women-only anthologies but feels that women need better access to publication; as it is, women must be unusually accomplished to be recognized and appropriately rewarded. She has admitted that she unconsciously and inadvertently used patriarchal language in her 1981 collection A Sad Device, although since then she has been more careful. But she does not, like Erin Mouré and others among her contemporaries, feel the necessity for a new language to express women's concerns; nor does she believe that the language of the patriarchy, in existing before the poem, shapes it and must therefore be reformed.
If there is any criticism of Borson's poetry, it might be that it is too beautiful, too cloying, perfect, and unreal. Perhaps this is why she has turned to the more stringent form of the prose poem, which she handles with such skill, as in this example from The Whole Night, Coming Home:
Purple, papery, wisteria wreathed the house, and each May awhite box would arrive, its lid lifting to release not music butthe smell of gardenias, their number compounded by one. What defines the union this gift symbolized, my father to mymother, if one who came of it may speak for it? But I can't. Inthe end we carry forward only a little of each story.
In the evenings white ginger stood exalted in its leaves, anticipating stars, each point of origin, each needle in a nerve. Always the freedom, always the need, unresolved.
Whatever came or is yet to come is of this middle realm, forwhich the human eye is the inevitable instrument. Awe and disappointment, unique and to scale. Out of bounds the unin-habitable regions, both larger and smaller, in which all of thislies innocently hidden. Just as here among us go unnoticedthose merry-go-rounds whose horses appear or reap-pear, ghostwise, in the fuschia leaves.
In her collection Intent, or, The Weight of the World, Borson continued to explore the beauty and flexibility of the prose poem.