I occasionally write reviews or essays for literary magazines, here are some samples:
for Event Magazine
Nancy Holmes, The Adultery Poems, Ronsdale Press, 2002
Rebecca Fredrickson, the Secret Envy of the Unsaved, Coteau Books, 2003
Susan Gillis, Volta, Signature Editions, 2002
Don’t be deceived by the cover of Nancy Holme’s recent book, The Adultery Poems; the naked woman with her head in her hands is not so much desperate and fallen as she is Rodin’s thinker.The Adultery Poems is full of such tricks—just when you’re hoping for some juicy confession you realize you’re being toyed with, and the adultery theme is a vehicle with which to reflect on poetry, on writing. Yes, maybe the speaker has tangled in the shame and pleasure of clandestine sheets, but these poems are written with the craft and craftiness of hindsight, by which time, experience no longer stings, and abandon has met control.
The poems are titled à la A. A. Milne, as if helping us along with the narrative (‘What He Knows,’ ‘Whoops,’ ‘A Speeding Ticket’)—a notion I found charming, as is so much of this intelligent, witty and elegant collection. Holmes is adulterous with writing itself—‘refer to themouth and it refers back’ (‘When We Hadn’t Kissed Yet’). Poetry is the third point in the lovetriangle: ‘each poem adulterates’ (‘The Adulteress Wants a Love Poem’). Here, I am reminded of Sharon Old’s poem ‘Station,’ of how the speaker guiltily faces her husband with ‘the poems / heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.’ She addresses, from within the poem, the impact that being a poet has on a marriage—acknowledging that one has a secret, separate(adulterous?) relationship with the work. Hard to imagine a male poet fretting about such things.
All adulterous lovers need an audience (despite the apparent wish for secrecy), and the speaker here is watched over by Ovid’s cynical, paternal eye (‘love, all love is an art’). The watcher of the self is thus watched over by a wiser eye, both disapproving and voyeuristic, but in the end the power of the poem outlasts the carnal, even as it ‘double[s], triple[s] on the vine / the sun bludgeons every blossom into fruit.’ Language doubles up on itself too. The sonnet form is both adhered to and undermined, ‘Can A Sonnet Be a Joke’ ending with: ‘Oh stow it,/lots of fucking makes a better poet.’ In terms of the poem actually conveying eroticism, I found the rulesand constraint of the sonnet worked the most effectively in their necessary limit, as if the ideas are squeezed into Victorian corsets. Holmes clearly revels in burrowing into a single word’s possibilities; ‘ditch,’ apparently Latin for vulva, is called upon as a metaphor, a threat, and a hole to fall into. The ditch image recurs and works as an overall metaphor: just as we think we’re following along the grid, the map of the book, we find ourselves tripping up, and emerging muddy and dazed, and only slightly the wiser.
I particularly enjoyed the several ‘voices’ in The Adultery Poems, by turn deliberately mock-salacious—reveling in ‘the lubricating rain’ (‘Picking Tulips’)—, irritated and prim, then suddenly harsh and self-flagellating as the ugly side of the affair is callously uncovered with its‘ crusty underwear’ and ‘guilt like a cheap red dress.’ We both ‘stick it to her’ and ‘scholar her.’As readers we are complicit, like ‘those sick women poets’ who ‘want to absorb every soggy minute / down the slippery slope.’ We are accused of voyeurism even as the poet accuses herselfof her own exhibitionism—‘don’t believe it when she tells you / this is made up’ (‘The Curse of Having Written Love Poems That Mean Nothing Now’).
‘No one has ever shown a link / between great sex and great poems,’ writes Holmes, though perhaps this book comes close. She succeeds in writing erotic love poems, both playfuland dangerous, while commenting on the act of doing so with a touch so light and droll that thereader delights and is challenged.
Rebecca Fredrickson’s debut collection, The Secret Envy of the Unsaved, describes itself on its back cover as ‘great poetry,’ a proclamation rather rash in its enthusiasm perhaps. Still, there is something outstanding and compelling about this book—Fredrickson asks important questions about faith, family, morality and sexuality, in poems so honest, breathless and confident in their expectation of being attended to, that you can’t help but be carried along.
One gets the impression of a quiet and observant eye, a pent-up voice suddenly releasedby discovering poetry and pouring forth a torrent of words. Many of the poems in this collectionare long-lined, dense and anecdotal—there is no quick emotional hits here; you have to make the commitment to the page, to the story. Fredrickson wrestles with the push/pull of a loving homeand the struggle for individuation: ‘I wanted to be nowhere / near my family,’ small town life‘ sealing us all into the same place.’ The poems are rooted in Christian faith, ‘Sing Praise, for you are fearfully and wonderfully made,’ while also reaching for the freedom to ‘say anything without their hearts / pounding wild and chaotic.’ The ‘Secret Envy’ of the book’s title refers to a yearning—or perhaps more an intense curiousity—for a world outside the church, the family, the familiar town. And yet, the work is fueled by belief even as it celebrates the sensual, as in ‘Things My Mother Has Taught Me’—a wonderfully gentle, physical poem reminiscent of Greg Scofield’s ‘I Knew Two Metis Women.
’Reading The Secret Envy of the Unsaved is a bit like being stuck with an eccentric aunt at a family wedding—both fascinating and claustrophobic. One wishes for the poems that they had a wider stage: Here is a promising voice; bring on the epic novel.
Volta is the carefully wrought second collection from Susan Gillis, whose first acclaimed book was Swimming Among The Ruins. Gillis employs the notion of a contemporary translation—or ‘permutation’ as she calls it—of a collection of sonnets penned some 500 years ago by The Earl of Surrey (not the B.C. one). The originals are starting points for Gillis’s free verse, but the ideas and the emotional integrity live on, show through like ghosts, demonstrating the timelessness of human amour. The line is confidently handled, paying homage to and conveying some of the 15th century chivalry and elegance, meanwhile radically lifting the old into the new, and, interestingly, transcending gender. In this regard and in the book’s time traveling and shape-shifting I am reminded of Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry.
While reading Gillis’s book I reflected on the tricky question of poets from the English Department. How close is too close? At what point does a poet’s learning eclipse the magic (by which I mean the surprise) of language, even if the ideas serve to persuade the reader? And is it possible to raise such a question without sounding like a complete hick? Gillis is a marvelouslyricist. I found myself hungry for more moments when the beauty of the line rose above the conceit. In several poems this seemed to happen toward the end—the pay off, well, pays off, as in ‘Love As Extended Care’: ‘...yet I am heavy with longing as the jasmine is with nectar.’ I quote from Kitchen Floor as another example of Gillis’s skill:
"...and on the floor a dark
shock where the wind has come in and blown over
the vase of peonies, the wet petals wine-dark
in the gloam before you turn on the light; weather
gathering in the hills where we’d hoped for stars."
This is an ambitious and admirable book that raises fascinating ideas. The ‘turn’ of thetitle is held up as a question: on salvage, on history, on the heart. The language is dense, dark, brimming over: ‘following the dream’s luscious air.’ I could happily devour this sensual writing even without having to wade through scholarly narrative.
Essay on the Scottish Poet Kathleen Jamie, for Arc Magazine:
Miranda Pearson introducing Kathleen Jamie
Kathleen Jamie was born in 1962 and raised near Edinburgh. She studied Philosophy at Edinburgh University and her first book Black Spiders was published when she was twenty. She is regarded as one of the most gifted and influential contemporary poets in the UK. She been nominated or won numerous literary awards including the Forward Poetry Prize in 2004 for The Tree House. Other books of poetry include The Way We Live (1987), The Queen of Sheba (1994), Jizzen (1999). In 2002 she was short listed for the Griffin Prize for the collected poems Mr & Mrs Scotland Are Dead. Prose and travel writing titles are A Flame In Your Heart (with Andrew Greig), The Golden Peak: Travels in North Pakistan (reissued as Among Muslims) and The Autonomous Region: Poems and Photographs from Tibet (with Sean Mayne Smith). In 2005 she published a collection of non-fiction essays, Findings. Kathleen Jamie has held several Writer-in-Residence posts, and is currently a part-time lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of St.Andrews. She lives in Fife, Scotland, with her husband Phil, and their two children. John Burnside has said of Jamie: “she’s one of our handful of really important lyric poets…anybody who doesn’t know who she is or has not read her is missing something”.
I met Kathleen Jamie in 1995 when she was in Canada for a Writer In Residence gig at Western University. From there she and her partner Phil had driven across Canada (“even Phil started to get sick of trees”, she said) and ended up, in time honoured fashion, in Vancouver, where we happened to give a reading together in a bookstore. I liked her enormously, her canny intelligence, the deep compassion right alongside the crankiness, a combination that equaled out to a rare humour I had not realized I was so homesick for.
Her collection The Queen of Sheba had been published the previous year and while she was in Vancouver she heard that it had won the Somerset Maugham Award back in Britain. I had been out of the country long enough not to appreciate that this was something of a big deal. In fact only years later, when I was chatting to another poet from Scotland and mentioned Kathleen, did I realize that she had become famous. “She’s like God!”. I’m glad I hadn’t known that back in 1995 when God was eating curry in my living room, I might have been a little intimidated. As it was Kathleen generously encouraged me toward my first book, excited by the brazenness of placing exclusively women’s issues at the book’s core. “Dare to be serious” she said. After she went home to Scotland we corresponded intermittently, news of kids, politics, a bit of poetry. The tensions I had noticed in her, the acute observant sensitivity paralleled with the cutting caustic restlessness, are revealed in her poems, they are energized by this vital combination of toughness and delicacy.
I am just a woman of the shore
wearing your coat against the snow
that falls on the oyster-catcher’s tracks
and on our own; falls
on the still grey waters
of Loch Morar, and on our shoulders
gentle as restraint: a perfect weight
of snow as tree-boughs
and fences bear against a loaded sky:
one flake more, they’d break.
In terms of her poetics, Jamie has talked about poetry being a “democratic place, open to all”, a belief that poetry should be anti-elitist. More than anything, a reaching towards truth. Alongside the engagement with rhythm and sound, the musicality of the language (which is mostly about listening), Jamie’s poetry is underpinned with a philosophical morality, an insistence on truth telling. “If I write for anything, it’s to bring order out of chaos—but not too much”. With the innocent confidence of a writer unconcerned with ego, she is unafraid of transitioning between Scottish and English, the two tongues riffing off each other. “I like the feel of it and the texture in the mouth”. Scotland is an abiding character in her work, and while she resists the label of “a Scottish Poet”, Scottish she is, and politically passionate, calling her homeland a “rich seam” to draw from, in its strife and beauty.
See thon raws o flint arrheids
In oor great museums o antiquities
Awful grand in Embro—
Dae’ye near’n daur wnner at wer histrie?
Weel then, Bawaur!
The museums of Scotland are wrang.
Travel writing (particularly about China, Tibet, Pakistan and India), politically driven work circling Scottish history and contemporary urban national identity, poems regarding pregnancy and children--have given way repeatedly to the nature poem. “I take my solace in the natural world”, she says, “I can’t think of anything more important to write about”.
(for Jean Johnstone)
When all this is over I mean
to travel north, by the high
drove roads and cart tracks
probably in June,
with the gentle dog-roses
flourishing beside me. I mean
to find among the thousands
scattered in that land
a certain quiet lochan,
where water lilies rise
like small fat moons,
and tied among the reeds,
underneath a rowan,
a white boat waits.
Yet, Jamie repeatedly questions the “about”, preferring to write “toward” rather than “about” a subject. Of her 1999 book Jizzen, she has said, “once I knew what it was about, it was done”. The final word in this book: “proven”, suggests risen bread— apt for the book’s focus on childbirth—as well as echoing Plath’s resolute “right, like a well-done sum.” (From You’re, 1960). Like a sculptor working with marble, the shape or theme emerges only afterwards.
Whit dae birds write on the dusk?
A word never spoken or read.
From Skeins of Geese
This poem exemplifies many of Jamie’s themes, the circling of ideas on folklore, Celtic Shamanism, and of course, birds. The gestures towards mystery as we step into the space between the sacred and the human, and against the limits of language. The poet grants herself “permission to blunder into a delicate place”. As in much of her work, contemporary detritus—dialogue, graffiti, barbed wire—are combined with archaic symbolism that functions as omens in the modern world. The poems are rooted in humanity, children, history, place, yet strive to engage with something I hesitate to name—though words like spiritual, or higher power insinuate themselves. Luckily Jamie has a knack for undercutting herself when these notions threaten to take over.
Jamie’s sinuous, witty, pitch-perfect work has now been solidly recognized in the world of literary awards, winning or being nominated for numerous prizes, The Scottish Arts Council Book award, The Somerset Maugham Award, the T.S.Eliot Prize, The Forward Poetry Prize, and in 2003, Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize. Although no doubt grateful for the acknowledgement (the “permission”) and the financial assistance proffered, Jamie seems to chafe against the notion of literary celebrity, reliably denouncing glitz, the sound bite, the authoritative statement. She says, “Poetry doesn’t have a mass readership because it doesn’t need it”. She remains more intent on a life of listening, walking, bird watching, and the quiet wooing of the poem. All we can try for is a winning it on side, a tentative taming of the wild and mysterious through the application of language.
towards the goddess we almost sense
in the verdant plastic
Leslie Vryenhoek, Gulf, Oolichan Books, 2011
Glen Downie, Local News, Wolsak and Wynn, 2011
Carleton Wilson, The Material Sublime, Nightwood Editions, 2011
Place is undeniably a recurring concern in Canadian poetry, a backdrop to which we constantly return. Perhaps this is an especially Canadian notion; so many of us are from somewhere else, it follows that our motifs circle themes of travel, loss and the subsequent search for home in its myriad meanings. And even if we are not ourselves displaced or itinerant, Canada has such an immense physical geography that we are impelled to try and make sense of the space, to reach across it, to contain it within the frame of the poem. Perhaps this delving into identity and place represents a longing for lost childhood, a search for ‘the soul’s address,’ an endeavour to preserve, to claim. Poetry has a potential to do this, to be the vessel that moves between consciousness, time and borders, be they tangible or ethereal. We look to poetry to understand better where we’re from, and who we are. In distinct ways, these three books address these questions.
The cover image of Leslie Vryenhoek’s first collection, Gulf, is taken from a painting entitled Flying West Across the Atlantic. It depicts lines stacked as if to suggest strata or various horizons. This is apt, given that the poems in Gulf speak of borders, travel, the traversing of lines (as here, from ‘Failing Geography’):
"How is it that some hold maps
in their heads—whole cities unfolding
in cranial creases, pricked
with push pins that stand out
in gray matter, directing them back
to every place ever been?"
The poems arise out of an uprooted childhood and stay with the theme of displacement. They imagine the lives of earlier immigrants, ponder ways of trying to fit in: ‘the craft of speaking softly’ (‘Conversion’), and how we employ objects and names to try and define ourselves, to track our own topography. In the last section Vryenhoek touches on ways that human connection can become an abode: ‘I moved into you/like a desperate tenant…’ (‘New Tenant’s Lament’). Ultimately, the poems convey a sense of finding a home through close engagement with a new landscape and the confidence that comes with a more sage acceptance of cultural difference. The book maps the struggle to make sense of the past and arrive at an uneasy settlement.
I found it intriguing that the collection comprises separate lyric poems, arranged in four sections, when the theme of the work is so cohesive, so well explored, as to suggest a long poem. Although the individual poems do work separately, I glimpsed a more experimental book concealed within a traditional structure. A poem like ‘Going, Gone,’ that employs an auctioneer’s voice to list objects signifying a family history, speaks to this tension; its commanding use of collage reaches for more various forms than the individually titled poem. Vryenhoek has an assured voice; the poems have a taut, precise clarity that demonstrates skill and talent. They particularly shine where they least employ anecdote, allowing imagery and language to work their magic. The poem ‘Unspooling,’ for instance, does not allow the narrative to dictate the image,
"the peculiar sharp rubbery smell of a blue bathing cap,
its hundreds of tiny tentacles waving as if some anemone
had attached itself to your mother’s skull…
the hot whump of the kerosene torch/your dad lit"
Here, the conjured pictures are vivid and sensory, leaving us with
a sense of mystery and longing. ‘Beacon,’ too, has freshness and lucidity, though the final (over-explanatory) stanza modifies that effect. Several times while reading this collection, the creative writing teacher in me wanted to say, ‘you might try cutting the last stanza’ or ‘nix the last two lines…don’t tell us what it’s about.’ The language and imagery are compelling enough not to need autobiographic clarification. Why have the poem tie itself up neatly at the end and protect us from emotional discomfort, making the arcane stolidly reasonable? More mysterious and powerful are poems such as ‘Gladiolus borealis’ that let the music of the language perform itself,
for what you relinquished:
the cottonwoods’ summer blizzard,
a shudder of thunder, heat,
heat and Aurora Borealis,
her impatient fingers reordering
a turbulence of stars."
Gulf is a strong debut; it will be interesting to follow this poet’s future direction. Local News is Glen Downie’s seventh book. Although diverging in its (prose poem) form, it nevertheless reads as a continuation of his previous collection, Loyalty Management, that won the Toronto Book Award in 2008.
Local News, too, is rooted in Toronto (though does not name it), and engages with the significance of human habitats—how and where we live, and how this might show us who we are. The dedication, ‘for my neighbours,’ could be a warm welcome or a wise preemptive move, given that much of the content views the human condition bleakly.
Downie employs the device of ‘poet’s eye as camera,’ roaming from room to room, then out into the outside world, to the neighbourhood shops and then to the mall. The first section, touring the interior of a house, is particularly inventive. It reminded me of children’s stories in which the inanimate objects in a child’s room come to life. Jangling with surreal vibrancy and suffused with a sinister edginess, many of these poems have a sting in the tail. For instance, ‘Bedroom’ concludes,
"the barren desert of the unloved, the straw-strewn, smelly cage
of the wed-too-long, the unescaped, the suicidal."
Barbara Nickel’s 2007 collection Domain is similarly organised around the rooms of a house. Whereas Nickel explores her family history and demonstrates various poetic formal structures, Downie’s book is full of dark humour. The poems are dense, cluttered like stuffed rooms, the voice gossipy and shrewd. As in his previous work, an insightful psychological intelligence runs through the book—a sort of playful thing-theory meets Freud. Everyday familiar objects are placed under the microscope, their meanings re-envisioned and mirrored back to us. The lens is unflattering: we fill our lives with things we don’t need, and our domestic detritus and rituals are poignant and absurd.
This is a fascinating collection—funny, dark, conflicted. It shines a merciless light on how we hoard—we need our homes, our possessions, our community, the big-name stores, even as we rail bitterly against them. But these poems are also compassionate and imaginative, deeply humane, political and brave in their protest, as evidenced in ‘Toys RUs,’
"Toys are not us. Toys are her. We’re the job, the mortgage, the gastric ulcer, spiraling credit card debt. We’re identity theft, kiddy porn, the cut-up parents of missing children. We’re all the body parts or weapons you can cram in a gym bag. We’re immunizations, all-hazard insurance, homeland security, micro-chip ID. We’re the twin towers of western capital, more vulnerable than U.S. Steel ever dreamed. We’re exploding sneakers and unclaimed luggage. We’re high blood pressure, asthma, tainted water, mad cows in plague piles. We’re AIDS and SARS and weapons of mass destruction, playground equipment made water-resistant with cancer-causing agents. Toys are not us. Fears are us."
The Material Sublime, Carleton Wilson’s first full-length collection, is a handsome volume, its simple cover elegant and understated (reminiscent of the Faber poetry line in the UK). Wilson designed the book himself and clearly knows what he’s doing; much care has been taken here—the paper is ancient-forest-free, printed with vegetable dyes, the fonts a classical grey. Several chapbooks preceded this collection and the poems are well-honed, each line working alone, the line-breaks subtle and elegant. The work is less about a subject than about reaching toward it—more meditation than message. Like the work of Mark Doty, Wilson’s poems locate themselves in the everyday physical world: cities, parks, houses. They name places: Bloor Street, Granville Island and, also reminiscent of Doty, the language is unflashy. Yet, there is a close attention being paid that leads us to re-engage with the ordinary and think again about how we live.
The Material Sublime is book-ended by two sections that explore the Junction district in Toronto. ‘Junction Sonnets’ (previously published as a chapbook, which won the E.J. Pratt Medal for Poetry in 1998) is gritty, tight, crosshatched by imagery of train tracks and brickwork. ‘Junction Elegies’ consists of five prose poems with a potent sense of place—overlaid and changed by memory. Wilson works well with the long line; the poem takes on a feel of incantation, interior monologue. The strongest pieces in the collection’s longer middle section concern nature and animals. Entirely unsentimental, they carry an ominous, dark sense of danger, even violence. Wilson invokes Heaney but I was reminded more of Ted Hughes in some of these poems, as in this excerpt from ‘Intelligent Crockery,’
"I will just lie here in the cool grass
with the smell of freshly dug earth
rooted in my head
and feel fiendish for a while, be a badger."
Less effective is the handful of poems that employ religious language and imagery. They seem overly abstract and out of place in a collection so otherwise rooted in the mortal, the earthy. I wasn’t sure if they were satirical or perhaps exemplary of the found poem, but alongside the rest of the collection they seemed incongruous.
As we read more on-line and as even the idea of the material book grows nebulous, it is deeply heartening to find physical books of poetry being made as lovingly as this. Poetry: possibly the last outpost of book-as-object, the material sublime.
— Miranda Pearson