Speaking, Pausing for Breath, and Gardening
- Salimah Valiani (Author)
breathing for breadth. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Olive Senior (Author)
Gardening in the Tropics. Insomniac Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sharon Proulx-Turner (Author)
what the auntys say. McGilligan Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Erin Wunker
what the auntys say is part creation myth, part oral epic. Sharon Proulx-Turner’s book rests on a firm foundation; divided into four sections, the structure alludes to the four cardinal directions, four elements, and four seasons. This is where traditionalism ends and re-vision, in the sense of looking with new eyes, begins. Proulx-Turner articulates a woman-centred epic that “weaves these stories into one long birth of one old metisse lady.” Metisse, one of the many inventive terms in the text, “means metis woman-girl / two half bloods not half and half like cream.” Guided by the omniscient voices of the auntys, Proulx-Turner weaves “a story of growth and pain and a nation birthing out from an / unfamiliar egg.” The egg motif is maintained throughout the interconnected narratives. In the first section, “a few eggs short of a picnic,” the old woman is birthed from the “backbone of the land” and protects the stories of her people although “they thought she’d died of a heart attack.” This is a text of survival and transformation. The old lady becomes the trickster/storyteller when the traditional trickster, the “young crow or raven nuzzles deep into her spine.” All women are both “that old lady only twelve years old / ashamed of her fear,” and the “women circles keeping time.”
With incisive wit, Proulx-Turner pokes fun at token multiculturalism; one can “plant a moose plant a bear / adopt a salmon or a hare,” but it is of no real value because “crow doesn’t tell bear’s story.” Some jarringly successful enjambments of language alert the reader that much in the world is a matter of changing perception: “words refracted / readjust the text / read just what’s on the page.” Finally, this text takes up the multifaceted feminist poststructural question of language. “How am I going to put the mother back in the language?” Proulx-Turner’s narrator asks, lamenting that there are “all those eggs and just one basket.” The book draws its conclusion from a determination to avoid closing dialogue. In the final poem, there is a call to “change the past so’s we can change the storm / says the old lady to that turtle egg.” Changing the past, in these poems, is about a continuation of dialogue “where words are rare redyellow clay / soft and serious / fast-talking silence stills the pain / to hear the feel / to feel the hear.”
breathing for breadth is Salimah Valiani’s first collection of poetry. The volume is divided into seven sections, each of which attempts to maintain the conceit of its title. Unfortunately, the poems making up the sections appear arbitrary in their relation to the titles. The first section, Wheezing, begins with the poem “Grandma.” The poem opens with a loose sort of lyricism; “Bright yellow / dark red / Green chilies turn / my lips / hot red” scans with the same cadence a metronome might. The poem continues with incremental repetition of colour. However, instead of long lines broken off to mimic the sound and action of wheezing, the poem’s short lines and heavy rhymes fall flat: “You / lose your mein, / urine splashing free / . . . / Gray / in your dread.” The second poem, “Grandpa,” falls victim to a similar fate. This time, the unrhymed couplets virtually leap off the page in their exuberant cadence: “Eating your fingers / ’cause you think they are food / Calling your father / ’cause you think he’s alive.” There is no laboured breathing here. The remainder of the first section is comprised of a disparate group of poems. From an elegy for the East Hastings section of Vancouver (“smog fused with foam and cushy green moss”), to a footnoted poem about cooking yogurt curry (“The texture is sumptuous / the rice is good / but the coloring is funny”), to a poem about the music of the body (“Blood-beat beating / but only below / . . . / His belly burst / . . . / bowels and scrotum eased”), it is difficult to determine what holds these poems together under the unifying theme of “wheezing.”
The other sections follow suit. While Sighing, Breathlessness, Blowing, Gasping, Cucumber Breaths, and Inhaled Breaths each have moments of loveliness, on whole the poems suffer from an overly didactic stylistic. The most poignant lines are the least worked over: in “Sarafa Bazaar, Karachi” the simplistic line breaks direct the reader over a body, “It is a feast for the ears / neck / wrists / fingers / toes.” While it is clear that Valiani has had a wealth of experiences, many of which have rendered her an activist for change, this rarely come through effectively in her poems.
Olive Senior’s Gardening in the Tropics, on the other hand, is a polished and thematically cohesive collection. The concrete poem “Gourd” stands alone and opens the collection, setting the stage for the poems to follow: “hollowed dried / calabash humble took-took / how simple you look. But what / lies beneath that crusty exterior? / Such stories. . . .” Senior organizes her poems into four sections. Travellers’ Tales begins with “Meditation on Yellow,” a poem about the colonial plundering of indigenous people’s land and culture. The narrator’s calm, biting observations are deftly wrought, “But it was gold / on your mind / . . . / Though I couldn’t help noticing / . . . / silver was your armour / silver the cross of your Lord.” The second section of the poem finds the narrator “At some hotel / overlooking the sea . . . / served by me / skin burnt black as toast / (for which management apologizes).” While this poem is a scathing catalogue of thousands of years of the exploitation of humans by other humans, Senior’s voice never becomes sanctimonious. Instead, her consciousness comes through in uncomplicated and searing phrases: “So I serving them / coffee / tea / cock-soup / rum / Red Stripe beer / . . . / But they still want more / . . . / Though I not quarrelsome / I have to say: look / I tired now.” Senior’s narrator forces the reader to acknowledge her responsibility to and for the human condition.
The following sections sustain this clear, unflinching voice. Nature Studies is comprised of shorter poems. These poems, like “Gourd,” are filled with stories just beneath their tough exteriors. Through the motif of indigenous plants, Senior interweaves tradition and myth with the lived reality of colonized peoples. Similarly, Gardening in the Tropics tells of the disparate things one might find digging in the rich tropical soil. All of the poems in this section begin with the line “Gardening in the Tropics,” but what follows is always a surprise: “you’ll find things that don’t / belong together often intertwine.” The final section of the collection, Mystery African Gods in the New World, situates various deities in the new globalized world.
Senior’s collection is the best kind: the poems beguile the reader with their inventive stylistics and wit. You cannot leave this volume without feeling the weight of damage that colonialism has produced, but neither can you leave it feeling hopeless. Senior’s poems incite action, hope, and the possibility of a better future—but only after a great deal of work has been done.
- Five Anthologies by Christopher Levenson
Books reviewed: Doors of the Morning by Fred Cogswell, New Life in Dark Seas by Stan Dragland, Writing Class by Michael Barnholden and Andrew Klobucar, Vintage 1999 by League of Canadian Poets, and Vintage 2000 by League of Canadian Poets
- Dismembered Culture by Robert Bringhurst
Books reviewed: Haida Art by George F. MacDonald
- A Barnyard Romance by Robert Stacey
Books reviewed: A Suit of Nettles by James Reaney
- Poems of Witness by Hilary Clark
Books reviewed: Momentary Dark: New Poems by Margaret Avison, Inventory by Dionne Brand, and Before the First Word: The Poetry of Lorna Crozier by Catherine Hunter
- Women in Western Canada by Janice Fiamengo
Books reviewed: Telling Tales: Essays in Western Women's History by Catherine A. Cavanaugh and Randi R. Warne
MLA: Wunker, Erin. Speaking, Pausing for Breath, and Gardening. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 167 - 169)
***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.