Body, Mind, and Spirit
- Susan McCaslin (Author)
At the Mercy Seat. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Hilary Clark (Author)
The Dwelling of Weather. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lynda Monahan (Author)
What My Body Knows. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Neil Querengesser
These books explore in various ways the manifold aspects of being. Employing poetic forms that range from traditional to quite contemporary, all three poets exhibit a quiet confidence in their subtle probings of the constantly shifting relation between language and life.
What My Body Knows is Lynda Monahan’s second book of poetry, following
A Slow Dance in the Flames (Coteau 1998). These are finely crafted poems, simple yet meticulous. Monahan achieves a remarkable smoothness, working with an unassuming vocabulary and superficially casual lines, lines that are in fact held together by some sophisticated metrics and subtly adept use of alliteration, assonance, consonance, anaphora, and related devices that provide rich levels of coherence but almost never obtrude. The sound and sense of each line is to be found in its centre rather than at its end, as well as in its relations to those lines above and below it.
The book is divided into four parts. Part one, “what my body knows,” comprises three moving elegies for her brother, stepmother and father, for each of whom she has experienced quite different emotions, followed by two concluding meditations. Parts two and three–“something worth keeping” and “the scent of snow”–trace, in often intimate detail, the nuances of marriage, love, and loving, their blisses and their heartbreaks. In part four, “fire stories,” the speaker seems to have distanced herself somewhat from her subject: appropriatly perhaps, given the destructiveness of the element she is dealing with. Often beginning, but not always ending, in the body of the speaker, the poems throughout this collection are like carefully guided probes sent from the heart, exploring the familial and marital landscape surrounding her. Their touch is sure, her voice assuring. The poetry reflects a lucid honesty of a body that knows much–within its immediate environment. It is a mature and moving collection.
Hilary Clark’s The Dwelling of Weather follows her earlier publications, More Light (Brick 1998) and Two Heavens (Hagios 1999). Of the three books under review here, The Dwelling of Weather is perhaps the least accessible. With her deliberately fragmentary style, and in her often unrelenting employment of ingenious and mind-stretching metaphors, Clark requires her readers to join actively in the creation of her poetry’s meaning. The book is filled with many stunning images, but the fragmentary techniques coupled with a general lack of transitional devices and of clear grounds for the metaphors demand much of the readers if they are not to succumb to the temptation simply to let the poems “be” (which may also be a worthwhile alternative). That said, there is little doubt that attentive readers will find many linguistic riches here as they work their way through landscapes and “body-scapes” as varied as the weather.
A profitable way into this collection may be found in the opening poems with their powerfully moving images and themes of resurrection. To enter fully into “Life Stories,” and “The First Day” is to undergo a profound disorientation that potentially frees the reader to experience body, mind, and spirit from a new perspective and orients one to the poems that follow. Many of these, particularly “Weather Notes: St. Peter’s Abbey,” “Weather Body,” and “Dwelling,” rehearse the title theme in various registers. Fragments of other poems and allusions to various works of art enrich a number of the poems. “Breaking the Lines,” and “Autumn Soup,” for example, use quotations from Wallace Stevens quite effectively as formative refrains.
Clark’s poems require several readings for the connections to clarify and the various themes to emerge. Seasoned weather-watchers know how varied, how surprising, the weather can be, and how difficult weather is to predict and to follow precisely in all its variety. Much the same can be said of this collection. But the patient reader of these poems, like the patient weather-watcher, can be well rewarded.
Several titles of works authored and edited by Susan McCaslin, such as A Matter of Spirit: Recovery of the Sacred in Contemporary Canadian Poetry (Ekstasis 1998) and Common Longing: The Teresa Poems and a Canticle for Mary and Martha (Mellen 2001) express spiritual and sacred themes. At the Mercy Seat seems to follow in that tradition by offering contemplative and mediative poems that approach the numinous through the ordinary. The book’s title alludes to, but never really specifies, the Biblical ark of the covenant, the mercy seat being a gold cover above the ark on which the blood of atoning animals was spilt and above which the spirit of God (shekinah) might appear. McCaslin’s poems reflect a more contemporary, metaphorical mercy seat in the form of rather domestic and ordinary images and settings where she nevertheless encounters aspects of the divine through epiphinal or transformational experiences, experiences that are, more often than not, “[l]ess a eureka moment / than a white flutter behind the ear.” The book takes a significant but somewhat playful triune form, under the subtitles “The Names of Green,” “Ob-la-di-bla-da (Life in the Burbs)” and “Matrilineal Lines.” McCaslin enters into an ancient tradition of visionaries from Jesus and Mary to Julian of Norwich to William Blake to Thomas Merton (among many others), even as she also enters into the immediate suburban surround of Barbie dolls, traffic lights and supermarkets, as well as the natural world of forests and lakes.
These are quiet poems that wash upon the mind like clean and graceful waves in that first sea of being. Yet despite their gentle nature they can disturb and move the readers in profound and prophetic ways, even as they offer visions of outpoured mercy. McCaslin moves with calm confidence through her poetry. If the world she describes has fallen, it has fallen “into language,” language whose inspired and careful use may just point a way back, a way of goodness and mercy.
- Daughters, Fathers and Other Fauna by Sonnet L'Abbé
Books reviewed: Cleaving by Florence Treadwell, Paper Moon by M. E. Csamer, Bonding with Gravity by Colleen Flood, The Weight of Flames by Bernadette Rule, and The Parable Boat by Hannah Main-van der Kamp
- Ectoplasmic Insanities by Catherine Owen
Books reviewed: The Lunatic Muse by Joe Rosenblatt and Parrot Fever by Michel Christensen and Joe Rosenblatt
- First and Last by Alison Calder
Books reviewed: Out to Dry in Cape Breton by Anita Lahey and When Earth Leaps Up by Mark Abley and Anne Szumigalski
- La mémoire blanche by Nelson Charest
Books reviewed: Pierre Blanche: Poèmes d'Alice by Stephanie Bolster and Daniel Canty, M'accompage by Marc André Brouillette, and Arbres lumière by Michel Pleau
- Frye Redux? by Graham Nicol Forst
Books reviewed: Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Process by Caterina Nella Cotrupi and Northrop Frye's Late Notebooks 1982-1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World by Robert D. Denham and Northrop Frye
MLA: Querengesser, Neil. Body, Mind, and Spirit. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #187 (Winter 2005), Littérature francophone hors-Québec / Francophone Writing Outside Quebec. (pg. 150 - 152)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.