- Katherine Lawrence (Author)
Ring Finger, Left Hand. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Alice Major (Author)
Some Bones and a Story. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Shelley A. Leedahl (Author)
Talking Down the Northern Lights. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Hilary Clark
Wives put gasoline on their wish lists. Brides-to-be slip out of their fathers’ houses and board ships bound for far places. Mothers revise their dates of escape as the seasons and children’s birthdays pass. Katherine Lawrence, Alice Major, and Shelley Leedahl write of the restlessness of women, while not overlooking the pleasures of home. The poems in Ring Finger, Left Hand, Lawrence’s first book, taste like the whisky sours of her poem "Morning After"—sharp and sweet. The book was awarded the 2001 First Book Award at the Saskatchewan Book Awards, and deservedly so. It is the work of a poet who has taken the time to sharpen her line-breaks and hone her words, resulting in the wit of poems like "Full Tank," in which a woman stops at a gas station and decides to leave her husband after watching a big dog left in a car:
Soon as the guy turned his back the mutt moved into the driver’s seat, sniffed
the circle of hot steering wheel & dragged his
wet pink tongue along the inside curve like a
lover, licked it once more real slow.
A number of Lawrence’s poems recall the claustrophobic world of women’s magazines and wedding guides of the ’50s, when wives "served ladies a light lunch / on white linen tablecloths" ("She Tried"), studied hem lengths, and stuffed "quart jars / of pickles, peaches, Monday-night pot roast" with the "poison" of their restlessness ("All-American"). Marriages are bitter and children learn to negotiate the violence just under the surface: in the first poem, for instance, about a family of paper dolls, one sister smiles at the scissors while the other "wishes / for a big wind" ("Cut Along the Dotted Lines"). Yet among such edgy pieces Lawrence has included poems of simple fulfillment, in which a woman wakes to a teacup of orange juice squeezed by her lover, and children are soothed and fed. Alice Major also writes about women, female saints, in her sixth book of poems, Some Bones and a Story. In a series of monologues, we meet women seeking alternatives to the traditional roles of daughter, wife, and mother—indeed, in the case of the Blessed Eustochium of Padua, who can fly, to gravity itself. These women may enter convents to escape marriage or, as in the case of Blessed Veronica from a poor family, to develop a talent—being able to weep quarts of tears—to give to the Church:
Now there’s ways and ways of holiness and you might think a pot of salt water isn’t much. But show me any pope who’s done the same.
St. Marina lives in a monastery, disguised as a monk, finding peace as a scribe in the "vellum silence of a line of gold / shaping into flowers, into fruit." Some women find their calling in caring for others, like the Blessed Louisa Albertoni, Widow, who bakes coins into loaves for the poor, in charity feeling "light as a loaf of good bread / swelling in the oven." However, some women turn from food with loathing, starving their marriageable flesh and branding it with crosses, seeking to escape their lot through "a door so narrow / few may pass through" ("A Supplication to Saint Anorexia"). Major explains in her afterword that these poems were inspired by the "fantastical" lives of women saints, lives overgrown with "a thicket of tale and oral tradition." Skilfully written, each poem is nonetheless largely driven by a story to be told, rather than by any pressure of poetic form; indeed, some of the tales (such as "The Cuckoo Chick") might be better told in prose.
In Talking Down the Northern Lights, her second book of poems, Shelley Leedahl writes of the pleasures and shadows of childhood, motherhood, and marriage. Her speaker (and it is largely one speaker) cares for her children, makes meatloaf and buys sheets at Zellers: "How small my world is" ("Afternoon with Sun and Spritzers"). Yet she also drives back and forth over the bridge, lusting after a workman in "shredded Levis, tongue-wagging boots" ("Jackhammer Crew"), and runs until "[t]he doctor says no more running / so [. . .] walk[s] a fast forty-five," boys "sweet tonguing" her from passing cars ("Poem Written While Sitting on a Headstone"). In "When to Drop the Bomb," my favourite poem in the book, a mother pours milk into the children’s cereal while watching the Gulf War on TV and making and remaking "dates of departure": " When the creeping charlie’s all gone. After our daughter’s 4th birthday. Timing is everything." In exploring the satisfactions and tensions of domestic life, Leedahl is as witty as Lawrence but more quietly so.
While these poems by Lawrence, Major, and Leedahl are driven by story more than by language and music, they are nonetheless smart, sharp, and frequently lyrical, and should be read by anyone with an interest in the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of women’s resistance.
- Mortality and Memory by Paul Kennett
Books reviewed: The Rope-maker's Tale by W. H. New, Never More There by Stephen Rowe, and Athena Becomes a Swallow and Other Voices from the Odyssey by Brent MacLaine
- Tropes of Time and Place by Crystal Hurdle
Books reviewed: Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names by Soraya Peerbaye, R's Boat by Lisa Robertson, Track & Trace by Zachariah Wells, and Against the Hard Angle by matt robinson
- Poète de l'entre-deux-mondes by Denise Rochat
Books reviewed: Rouleaux de printemps by Patrice Desbiens
- Abiding Space by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: The Occupied World by Alice Major
- Mapping and Way-making by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: Fierce Departures: The Poetry of Dionne Brand by Dionne Brand and Leslie Sanders, Blues and Bliss: The Poetry of George Elliott Clarke by Jon Paul Fiorentino, and Lousy Explorers by Laisha Rosnau
MLA: Clark, Hilary. Restless Women. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 162 - 164)
***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.