Reinterpretations

  • Eleonore Schonmaier (Author)
    Wavelengths of Your Song. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Ricardo Sternberg (Author) and Ricardo Sternberg (Author)
    Some Dance. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Michael Penny (Author)
    Outside, Inside. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Maude Lapierre

While these three collections vary greatly in form, they share a concern for the manner in which current perceptions force reinterpretations of memories, relationships, and language. Eleonore Schönmaier’s Wavelengths of Your Song explores the tensions between past and present in a world in constant flux. Memories of the past shape not only the understanding of the self, but also the manner in which the present can be perceived. The speaker is anxious to establish relations between what she has learned from her father, his environmentalism and love for the frozen landscape, and her own travels throughout the world. Despite its constant meandering, this collection does not move freely between times and places as it remains forever aware of death and of the political complexities that constrain movements, of “the danger inherent in travel.” Its dialogue between places, the past, and the present is also mirrored in the form her poems often take, as her constant use of the colon illustrates conversations between speakers, opens up her poems, and muddles their meaning. Schönmaier’s poems also create connections between different forms of art, such as music, literature, and painting, because stories generate identities. As the speaker states, “Admiring the surfaces, we forget / we’re also the stories we never share.” Through intertextual references to Greek mythology and works by Goethe, Kafka, and Celan among others, Wavelengths of Your Song strives to generate new ways to interpret relationships between people, artists, and art forms. Yet, these new relationships are fragile since “you tell people the truth knowing / full well they won’t believe you.”

Ricardo Sternberg and Michael Penny’s collections are similarly constructed around the themes of identity construction and memories, and also weave Greek mythology within their works. Penny’s interlinked suite of poems in Outside, Inside is mostly concerned with words and their meaning, and how his poems write “an entire world into existence / . . . a spelling error / could annihilate / a needed life form.” These poems betray a certain anxiety of place and time, as the speaker fears he might be lost, in an unknown location, or running out of time “because / I am captive and master / in all my own words.” Penny’s poems both assert and undermine the speaker’s identity, initially claiming to “know where I am” but later stating that “there is no here.” In this quest for self-discovery, maps cannot be trusted “because they fold,” so the speaker remains simultaneously lost and not lost, here but not here. Written through the lyric “I,” readers of Outside, Inside are guided by the perspective of the speaker, who mainly focuses on establishing his identity and his place in the world. While never claiming to be an all-encompassing and universal “I,” the speaker’s voice can be overbearing and alienating at times, especially in passages that constantly assert what he knows, what heowns, and what he sees. Yet, the speaker never establishes himself too authoritatively, as the nature of writing entails a certain loss of control: “words vandalize / chipping away meaning.”

Sternberg’s Some Dance is also interested in the meaning of words and the power of literature to force readers to consider competing perspectives, but his poems blend humour with an emphasis on strong contrasts in order to explore how the interplay between opposites creates meaning. Much like Schönmaier, Sternberg relies heavily on intertextuality, as the relationship between memory and stories greatly shapes experiences. In the first section, readers follow an unnamed protagonist as he moves from a commune, a medical clinic of dubious legality, to a bench by the sea. The protagonist’s experiences cannot be trusted, as memories and perceptions have blurred due to the influence of time, literary fiction, and soap operas. The second part is not as closely interlinked, as the poems draw from other works of literature in order to explore how individuals relate to stories to reinterpret their meaning. In “Morals,” the speaker reflects that the moral of La Fontaine’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper was lost on him, because the tale made him pray at night that one ant “slipped the hidden crumb / to the dazed, half-dead grasshopper.” The speaker also reflects on the manner in which meaning shifts, as with the expression “no love lost” which seems to signify intimacy (“so close were we at one time that in our traffic / there was no love lost between us”) but which also signifies the opposite. Through this emphasis on contrasts, the poems indicate that meaning is in constant flux and must always be reinterpreted.



This review “Reinterpretations” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 180-81.

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