Divining the Elegiac
- Sue Chenette (Author)
Slender Human Weight. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Susan Briscoe (Author)
The Crow's Vow. Signal Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Merle Nudelman (Author)
The He We Knew. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by David Leahy
What these collections of poetry have most in common is the elegiac mode—especially its humbling challenge when trying to communicate diverse registers of loss and grief in short free verse lyrics. Many of Merle Nudelman’s poems in The He We Knew are about the accumulative estrangement of a son—
Keys clatter into my palm. Silvery / ones for the car; bronze for home. / No note. A muddle, keys / to our lives from the son // who made this his goodbye.—but many other poems turn away from that downward gyre; express what it feels like to be
sustained by a flame / that sings of odyssey: // the enduring loves, travail, / the final flash to nightingale.
In Slender Human Weight Sue Chenette’s frequently autobiographical slices of life can invoke the likes of an empty house (
Draperies Relaxed in Their Folds), simple domestic actions (
Intimacy), or a found object, and succinctly imagine the lives and secrets they might reveal. Such is the case with
To The Woman Whose Notebook I Found in the Puces de Vanves:
The recipes—for you? a friend? a mother-in-law? / Is it her hand that alternates / in strong forward-tilted strokes / with your round and sturdy backhand? / Did you share a kitchen? / Could you hold your own? The understated account of the nature morte of Chardin’s The Silver Tureen can prompt an eidetic memory yet refocus our sense of the painting’s magic upon the more banal foreground:
Partridge / and hare just that side, / the apple this side, / its life located, held / in view, potent, miraculous. This said, a few of the poems are slightly ingénue, as when we are told a self-referential anecdote about a street person in Paris who passes off copies of lines of Victor Hugo as his own
petit poème, but the majority are thoughtfully disarming.
The pièce de resistance is Susan Briscoe’s book length cycle, The Crow’s Vow. Like The He We Knew unsettling material predominates, but via more concise, precise meditations on the slow, painful threats to a marriage and its tentative renewal. Like Chenette, Briscoe has a talent for dissecting, often via stunning figurative juxtapositions, the lurking threats and paradoxes of our relationships to a deceptively idyllic world. Consider the grotesqueness of the concluding couplets of
Spring . . . :
We wake to a field mouse, / soft brown fur and clean white belly. // I could skin the whole family, / stitch pretty mittens. The collection’s imagistic mapping of the weight and fancy of the seasons in an almost exclusively rural domestic setting builds inexorably to overt feelings of despair, of emotional dams breaking—
You have been pulling the stones for months— / thought I wouldn’t notice, / but I knew . . . / Wake downstream and wet, / wade, stumblingly, back. Briscoe’s delicately handled yet forceful ability to capture, contain and convert a sense of betrayal, fear, and failing love into something more uplifting yet unsentimental in couplet after couplet is impressive; as when the understated images of the cycle’s last poem dramatize the tension between the renewal of the marriage bed and its tenuousness, its potential to melt away with yet another change of the seasons of the affections:
Still night in the morning, you / still beside me. // Snow banked to the eaves, / the driveway diminished // to the length and width of one car, / one door slightly open. // The path to the house / is of snow // packed by our boot prints. / Single file.
- "I'll Teach You Cree" by Nicholas Bradley
Books reviewed: Gabriel's Beach by Neil McLeod, Little Hunger by Phillip Kevin Paul, Fifth World Drum by Anna Mraie Sewell, and Kipocihkân by Gregory Scofield
- Personalities and Place by Brooke Pratt
Books reviewed: Lakeland: Journeys into the Soul of Canada by Allan Casey and Making Waves: Reading BC and Pacific Northwest Literature by Trevor Carolan
- Compelling Spells by Lally Grauer
Books reviewed: The Quality of Light by Richard Wagamese and Love Medicine and One Song by Gregory Scofield
- The Real and the Other by Albert Braz
Books reviewed: Les Indiens blancs: français et indiens en Amérique du Nord (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles) by Philippe Jacquin and Louis Riel: poèmes amériquains by Mathias Carvalho and Jean Morisset
- Translation Incorporation by Dean J. Irvine
Books reviewed: Esprit de Corps: Québec Poetry of the Late Twentieth Century in Translation by Louise Blouin, D. G. Jones, and Bernard Pozier and Body Inc.: A Theory of Translation Poetics by Pamela Banting
MLA: Leahy, David. Divining the Elegiac. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #213 (Summer 2012), New Work on Early Canadian Literature. (pg. 179 - 180)
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