After Sorrow, What?

  • Genevieve Lehr
    Stomata. Brick Books (purchase at
  • Alyda Faber
    Dust or Fire. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at
  • Laura Broadbent
    In on the Great Joke. Coach House Books (purchase at
Reviewed by Alex Assaly

Poetry often tends toward the “unsayable”: the intensely personal or the radically spiritual. The poet stretches and strains language in his or her attempt to put these evasive subjects into words. But language is fragile. Words “slip, slide, [and] perish,” as T. S. Eliot writes, and frequently crack under the pressures of articulating the inarticulate. Three recent collections of poetry call on word, syntax, and form to perform in the domains where they most often break down: trauma and grief, empathy and rapture. While at times their poetry-making ends in banal sentiments or trite verse, at others, it reaches the unsayable with craft and sensitivity.

Genevieve Lehr’s second collection of poetry, Stomata, is a poignant study of loss and grief. In the long poem that opens the collection, “The latter half of the third quarter of the waning moon,” Lehr takes the reader through a number of personal trials. Death, marriage, parenthood, disease, disability, and madness leave her speaker fractured and often desperate. Even everyday circumstances become unbearable under the weight of her adversities: a car ride, for example, turns into an occasion to contemplate how “sorrow is concentric, a sea blooming around the shoreline of her eyes.”

But, if sorrow is concentric, then hope is linear. Pathways and lines of poetry supply ways out of loss and grief. In “Committal,” the speaker’s walk down a “long driveway” encourages her to reflect on her friend’s death and to memorialize him in poetry. Even when Lehr’s lines become histrionic, the reader senses that any utterance, no matter its poetry, has a near-mystical ability to recuperate its speaker. In the most impressive piece of the collection, Lehr considers the transformative power of language in a public setting. “Residential,” a prose poem filled with Mi’kmaq words, recovers the voice of a boy who has been forced into silence by the English-speaking residential school system.

Alyda Faber’s Dust and Fire also takes family and misfortune as its subjects. Faber constructs an incredibly honest picture of her familial history across the four parts of her collection. In the first, she includes Frisian epigraphs for each poem, which she then translates somewhere in the poem itself. This process of translation provides an interesting mirror to Faber’s expressive poetics, a poetics driven by translating hidden sentiments into written language.

Faber’s transcription of her family history reveals her father to be a particularly complex figure. In “Leeuwarden Train Station,” he is at once ferocious in his treatment of his family and sensitive in the overwhelming sadness he feels at the loss of his wife. Though Faber’s honesty is often moving, it does intermittently fall into stale self-expression. Faber is at her best when she finds an objective correlative for her personal emotions. “Goldfish,” for example, is her most lucid and successful poem. A goldfish, its mouth agape as it prepares to eat, sparks a moment of introspection:

Was I once so round in expectation?

Mouth open for the nipple

breaking the surface of my own dark

without a glimmer of thinking.

Here, Faber effectively abstracts the personal—she shows or symbolizes it, rather than describing it—to translate it into poetry.

Laura Broadbent’s In on the Great Joke is the most interesting of the three collections and the most nuanced in its treatment of language. In her introduction, Broadbent turns to the Tao Te Ching to support her claim that “language is a limited system”: it reduces even the most mysterious things into empirical and systematic signifiers. Broadbent’s poetry gets its strength by playing with the tension between the finiteness of language and the infiniteness of reality. Her most effective device is bathos:

Denial and repression

represent our chief

creative forces.

Create a shrine to them,

leave offerings of

incense and Gatorade.

In moments such as these, Broadbent exposes the precariousness of language by using bathos both to undercut her efforts at a metaphysical claim and to recontextualize a consumer product so as to render its signifier absurd.

In the latter half of her collection, Broadbent does redeem language. Literature, she writes, has the potential to be the site of a “radical empathy”: an “alchemical” process in which an empathetic reader and a writer (as signified by his or her words) combine in the mind of the former. When the writer’s words enmesh themselves in the mind of the reader, the writer, text, and reader blend without differentiation or hierarchy—a perfect correlative to the accomplished genre-blending of Broadbent’s collection.

This review “After Sorrow, What?” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 138-139.

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