The Privilege of Age
- Elizabeth Brewster (Author)
Bright Centre. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- P. K. Page (Author)
Hand Luggage. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sara Jamieson
In her new collection of poems, Bright Centre, Elizabeth Brewster states that “It is the privilege of age / to repeat / to write the same poem / in a different mode.” It is a privilege that P.K. Page, too, claims for herself in her latest book, Hand Luggage. Both poets revisit earlier material in ways that contradict the stereotypical association of age with mere repetitiveness, and instead acknowledge the trickiness of memory, the seductions of nostalgia, and the paradox of an aging self that neither changes nor remains the same. Hand Luggage is a “memoir in verse” that traces a chronological narrative, beginning with Page’s childhood in 1920s Alberta. Introducing a young self “masked as a malamute, mutable, moody,” Page establishes the densely alliterative texture of the entire work. Leaving childhood and Canada quickly behind, she devotes the bulk of the poem to the years when she accompanied her husband Arthur on his diplomatic postings to Australia, Mexico, and, most memorably for Page, Brazil. Many episodes will be familiar to readers acquainted with Page’s Brazilian Journal, but are retold with significant shifts in emphasis. Her telling of her first night in Rio, when she mistook the noise of fireworks for revolutionary gunshots, contains the image of “Arthur as pale / as the moon in his nakedness” leaping out of bed to inspect the commotion. This image does not appear in the Brazilian Journal version of events; Page’s retelling invests the scene with a new drama and poignancy, making it a tender memorial to Arthur, who died in 1999.
Page’s habitual fascination with multiple selves is mapped across the life course in a way that stirs up questions concerning the politics of race and class in a global context. She repeatedly questions the extent of her former complicity with the racism of some of her peers in the “world-wide white club” of international diplomacy in the 1950s and 1960s, but the poem does not consistently destabilize colonialist ideology. Indignance at the relegation of aboriginal art to the basement of a gallery in Melbourne is followed by a vaguely paternalistic reference to “our” aboriginal art by “Algonquin and Cree.” Later, the comparison of poverty in Canadian cities to the favelas of Rio punctures first-world assumptions of superiority, but the impact of this parenthetical aside is compromised by its containment within the poem’s lilting tetrameter rhythm: in reading this 93-page poem, I did find myself craving more metrical variation.
Accustomed to the privileges of diplomatic life, Page returns to Canada as a person whom she suspects her younger self would not have liked very much “had [they] been introduced.” Imagined meetings between older and younger selves also occur in Bright Centre but are less politically charged, as in the Dickinson-esque “If I Should Meet Myself,” an uncollected poem from 1945. “By The River Again” is a return poem in the manner of “The Tantramar Revisited” in which Brewster measures the gulf between ambition and achievement within a familiar but changed landscape. To the ghost of herself at 20, the poet offers the modest assurance that “the next sixty years / will not be as good as you hope / nor as bad as you fear.” This tone of quiet melancholy dominates the entire second half of the book which is filled with elegies for lost friends and family. These are brief, short-lined poems with domestic settings and colloquial diction, infused with a nostalgia held in check by the awareness that “youth is always golden / at least in retrospect.” Two poems set in Jewish cemeteries explicitly address Brewster’s recent conversion to Judaism, and explore the issues of faith and community that dominate the first half of the book. The first half is relentlessly interrogative as Brewster tries to explain her conversion to confused friends who ask “‘Why?’ ‘How?’ When?’” In poems composed almost entirely of questions she struggles to interpret the teachings of Moses and Maimonides. Peppered with untranslated Hebrew words, these poems reflect Brewster’s own intensive study of various theological texts, and can seem impenetrable to readers unfamiliar with their religious context.
While Brewster is preoccupied with questions of death, ranging from the motives of suicide bombers to the experience of having outlived so many of her friends, the final poem, “Fear No More,” concludes the book on a hopeful note, affirming the “gentle endings” of Shakespeare’s late plays. This contrasts sharply with Hand Luggage, where the poet’s sense of the irreconcilable tension between the world’s beauty and its misery leads through to a startlingly pessimistic final vision of a planet where bigotry prevails and “‘things’ only get worse.” Hand Luggage and Bright Centre are engaging books by women who have both lived long, travelled widely, pursued serious study of different mystical traditions, and who are ultimately led to very different conclusions about the world.
- Versifications du sublime by Katia Grubisic
Books reviewed: La Lenteur au bout de l'aile by France Cayouette, Savanes, suivi de Poèmes de septembre by Joël Des Rosiers, L'Oeil de la lumière by Pierre Raphaël Pelletier, and Entre les murs de la Baltique by Dominique Zalitis
- 'Beyond can be our model" by Charles Barbour
Books reviewed: Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person: A Transelation by Eirin Mouré and The Weather by Lisa Robertson
- Between Exposures by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: Cinquefoil: New Work from Five Ottawa Poets by Mark Frutkin, Exposed by Catherine Hunter, and Between Lovers by Sheri-D Wilson
- Recollections by Iain Higgins
Books reviewed: The Centre: Poems 1970-2000 by Barry McKinnon, Mountain Tea by Peter Van Toorn, and Heresies: The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson 1924-61 by Dean J. Irvine and Anne Wilkinson
- Lyrics in Flight by Gillian Jerome
Books reviewed: The Drunken Lovely Bird by Sue Sinclair, Robinson's Crossing by Jan Zwicky, and Anthropy by Ray Hsu
MLA: Jamieson, Sara. The Privilege of Age. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 147 - 148)
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