New Poetry Collections
- Esta Spalding (Author)
Lost August. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Clarise Foster (Author)
The Flame Tree. Muses' Company (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Heather O'Neill (Author)
two eyes are you sleeping. DC Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kathleen O'Donnell
These three volumes contain poems that are highly original, sometimes terse and poignant. Narrative, elegy, or aphorism give shape to the personal and the autobiographical.
The poems of Lost August express the plenitude of life, as well as the finality of loss and death. Details emerge with hesitancy and repetition. Even confusion is suggested by the opening of the first section: "August—or was it August?" The subject here is not the time-frame so much as the experience of the loss of a daughter. The first poem refers to "a grieving father" who sent "four lions to four / corners to bring his daughter home." In the father’s fresco, the daughter returns; for her picture, she wears "a yellow dress," an image that provides the title for the third section of the book. The second group of poems, "Each girl, the one," portrays the love, nostalgia, suffering, and rapture of youth. In this section, a prose poem describes "the other side of your face laughing when you tipped your hat to that girl crouched on the glazed sidewalk, fingering cracks." Here, the pitiful-ness of life is described as well as some of the happiness as, tor example, in the conclusion of "Recipe": "I’m finding my mind has / changed, branching, it drinks / sometimes entirely brightness—."
The last section entitled "A yellow dress" allows the pain of loss to be communicated even by "the sound of the rain." The inevitablity of grief is understood—"The pattern we laid / out for her. A needle / a spool of thread." The continuation of life brings further loss. No traditional source of consolation is offered, only the reality: "There’s company in hornet noise. In the clock’s logic." The reality is that "September will fall / with twilight’s metal." Pain is necessarily assuaged by the sureness of "the earth’s / constant rotation" and by the author’s awareness that "It’s death / who breathes the first / air into our lungs."
While the impulse and development of the book rely on loss in its many forms, not to be ignored are the many poems of love and innocence such as "Salad Days" or "Rainy Day List" in the first two sections. Such affirmations persist throughout. At the end, there is a woman who "learned to love what goes missing." With all its lyrical beauty, Lost August also emphasizes the intellectual strength which gives life direction.
Heather O’Neill’s poems in two eyes are you sleeping can’t be described as intellectual, but rather as witty, penetrating, imaginative, visual, and emotional. She could describe herself at age thirteen "crawling with STDs / like magic wands" and could say "I didn’t think anything could break / certainly not my heart." Her own infant child laments: "I never had a father, and you never had a lover. / I will for sure be the real thing / if you look just once my way." Among the single mothers, many "are very competitive with each other / they lie about their boyfriends’ incomes and get caught up in having babies." Nevertheless, in this subculture, one may have standards. "When Matty Sings" contains the lines" "I’m here with my daughter / I don’t want to be talking to a coke dealer." In "Hepatitis in Ð¡ Minor," O’Neill states her belief that "Nobody is really good enough to love unconditionally." However, with her daughter, the poet realized that "it is truly awesome to love unconditionally / no matter what."
In the world of poverty, illness, and wandering, there can be surcease in pregnancy for "when you are pregnant / you feel kind of thick and easy with the world." At such a time, "people give you their seat on the bus / you get cut a bit of slack." The concluding poem presents other such aphoristic observations on life.
One of the first poems of the book describes life "in a Missouri I’m leaving and already missing." American influence is evident. One poem states "American money, I love it," while another complains, "only Canadian bills left, like ketchup without steak." The expression "24-hour convenience store / on the interstate," is used in one setting, and dépanneur for the corresponding shop in Quebec. Montreal street names (René-Lévesque, St. Christopher, Park Ave., St. Laurent, Jean Talon) occur as well as a reference to "the non-existent country of Quebec." The few changes in terminology do not alter the mentality of the work which retains the atmosphere of world beat rather than of a distinctly Québécois culture.
A specific place and culture is the background and often the subject in The Flame Tree by Clarise Foster. The poems are inspired by her sojourn in Guam where her brother died. The first of the four sections of the book is highly nostalgic, containing reminiscences of tropical Guam. The descriptions are reduced in the second section where human experiences, often of dissatisfaction and loss, are foregrounded. The third section entitled "The Poem Gets a Name" concentrates on aesthetic techniques with explicit references to modern painters and authors. Poetry becomes a consolation: "the poem has decided / to be my brother / the one who died of aids." The poet asks the poem to tell her "the ways a heart grows cold," and recognizes that "the poem sits without a stitch / leaving nothing to the mind but / the sweet rhythm of skin." Art cannot, though, provide a basis for the recommencement of life after her brother’s death.
The last group of poems in the volume includes "grey," an elegy in seven parts, and the meditative poem "when i have not slept" which describes the absence of the deceased brother: "you leave not a scar / but an opening." The following piece records an unnecessary self-infliction: "the day after you died / i burned my hand / the need perhaps to feel / something other than grief." The pain is explained "as a kind of logic / you inflict upon yourself / when there are no other maps." In the face of suffering and death, not logic but vision might be helpful, vision supplied by the Guam legends that are presented as introductions to each of the four sections.
The Flame Tree has been justifiably praised for the beauty of its descriptions, and for its ability to convey the scene and atmosphere of Guam. However, in the sequence of poems, place becomes subordinate to the human experience of bereavement. The poet describes herself in the final poem as "fixed to the vision" of the natural scene and unable to "break from the blindness" that holds her. Self-revelation, more than knowledge of Guam, may be what draws readers to The Flame Tree.
Each collection has a highly distinctive viewpoint and style, the individuality resulting at least partly from autobiographical details. There is, though, a little obscurity as each author relies to some extent on traditional styles, on allusions, and on echoes to enrich the poems.
- En un mot by Eric Paul Parent
Books reviewed: Lucarnes by Éric Charlebois and Solstices by Herménégilde Chiasson
- Reconsidering Lilith by Ian Rae
Books reviewed: A Song of Lilith by Lilian Broca and Joy Kogawa
- Blk, Wht, Read All Over by Crystal Hurdle
Books reviewed: Blue Feast by Shawna Lemay, Sooner by Margaret Christakos, and This Way the Road by Nina Berkhout
- Crystal Methods by Ian Rae
Books reviewed: Crystallography by Christian Bök, Dummy Spit by Mark Laba, and Hammertown by Peter Culley
- The Questions Posed to Life by Death, A Canon for Three Voices by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: Things that Keep and Do Not Change by Susan Musgrave, What the Living Won't Let Go by Lorna Crozier, and Kaddish for My Father: New and Selected Poems 1970-1999 by Libby Scheier
MLA: O'Donnell, Kathleen. New Poetry Collections. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #166 (Autumn 2000), Women & Poetry. (pg. 181 - 182)
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