Wary of Angels
- Anne Burke (Author)
Imprints and Casualties: Poets on Women and Language, Reinventing Memory. Broken Jaw Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Elizabeth Brewster (Author)
Jacob's Dream. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Margo Button (Author) and Natasha Thorpe (Author)
The Elders' Place: Iniqnirit Qalgiat. Oolichan Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Marilyn Iwama
Anne Burke titles her work “imprints,” because the volume reproduces texts that have “made their mark” elsewhere, mostly in the Living Archives series published by the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poet and “casualties” for the many there were: the deaths of contributors Bronwen Wallace and Anne Szumigalski, the lack of certain written records and a damaged friendship.
The first half of Imprints and Casualties reproduces two years’ worth of correspondence between poets Erin Mouré and Bronwen Wallace, largely concerning plans for a workshop at the next AGM of the League. Mouré floods Wallace with essays by feminist theorists and her critique of them in letters bristling with capital letters, strings of exclamations and interrogatives, and an insistence on what women must/should/have to do. Wallace sidesteps the questions, arguing for a narrative poetics of the particular that speaks to the larger experiences of “women.” In her foreword of 1993, Mouré has the final word: the letters represent “a struggle to know” and the friends’ parting was “amicable.”
It’s a tricky business, tying up loose textual ends for a friend who has passed on. Contra Mouré, Wallace’s final position in Imprints and Casualties is that this discussion of women and language alienated the two poets. At the very least, the vigour of their exchange echoes in the ensuing farrago of poems, essays and reflections. Marie Annharte Baker’s “Raggedy Shawl” and “Circling Back Grandma-To-Be Writing” are bold reminders that racism is also a defining and slippery force in the production of Canadian women’s writing. While the entire text reaches for a symbolism that is up to the task of representing “women,” contributions by Penn Kemp and Lola Tostevin, especially, treat the contentions of language. Memory is the focus of the final section; in my reading, the reflections by Anne Szumigalski and Sarah Klassen particularly resonate. Taken whole, Imprints and Casualties is a provocative documentation of the growth of the Caucus and a helpful introduction to the work of its members.
The Elders’ Palace is another collage. It emerged from three sources: stories and slides of Natasha Thorpe’s research into “elders’ knowledge,” the transcriptions of Thorpe’s interviews with the Kitikmeot elders of western Nunavut, and Margo Button’s own conversations with these elders. The volume also features ink drawings by artists Danny Aaluk, Mary Kilaodluk, Bella Kapolak and Natasha Naggie.
In the elders’ drop-in centre (the “palace”), Button’s encounters with Inuit elders who have lost children to various tragedies prompts in her both an identification—a desire to ease the pain of her own son’s suicide by pooling it with theirs—and a sense of separation from them that focuses her on the elders’ particular “soft / dry-eyed chant.” The visiting poet from the south also relates cultural practices in these poems: the raising of children by grandparents (“Isn’t it a burden? I ask the elders”), the best position for giving birth, how to eat raw caribou, the womanly art of tattooing, why one must avoid “the little people.”
Button and her collaborators take care to fashion a respectful telling. The elders have Button present the poems in Inuinnaqtun as well as in English. In the process of translating, Mary Kaosoni advised Button on Inuit protocol. The tone of humility about this volume suggests that Button heeded her advice. Perhaps this collective inflection in The Elders’ Palace is what recreates the elders’ words as a kind of plainsong, a litany of lost children in shared accents of grief. Grief familiar in its origins: gut, bone, blood. “She and I are ancient / as the first woman who left her baby behind.”
Some may criticize Button for crossing a line in her identification with the elders or for unwisely using “North” as a metaphor for barrenness and death. For seeing infants in the elders: “At eighty his eyes are milky like a newborn.” Or too much “Nature” in a woman birthing a baby “like a calf on the caribou hide.” Any such lapses are balanced by the translation on each facing page and by Button’s ironic self-reflection in such poems as “The Children”: “I should know better / [. . .] But didn’t it hurt to lose your child? I pry.”
One of my favourite poems from an earlier volume (The Shadows Fall Behind) reappears here. In “Tuktu, the Wanderer,” the speaker marvels at the “brief majesty” in a rack of caribou antlers—“tender-fingered tips flutter and reach— / sweet fruit the Inuit cut off and eat. Flesh / longs for flesh, bone for bone.” A speaker consoled by haunting images of life and death carried in startling language: antlers “like a mother’s arms / embracing me in a barren season.”
Less consolation than mischievous old friend is the part language plays in Elizabeth Brewster’s Jacob’s Dream. Both sections treat constancy: the first, the fickle constancy of change — seasons, language, senses, desire, life; the second, the steadfast originating source of it all.
Brewster begins the conversation with her readers on the night of the winter solstice: “Tomorrow the sun renews itself.” Reassurance continues in her gloss on Waller’s “Old Age” that “[w]eakness is sometimes strength / . . .Visions . . . invade / through chinks that Time has made.” Concerned as she is with the architecture of language, Brewster also talks with poets throughout this first section, disagreeing, challenging, expanding. She forgoes Milton’s celestial light for the comfort of shadows and “a small flashlight / flickering into corners.” She looks for inspiration to Sidney’s writing before her own “somewhat unreliable” heart that some days offers no more than gratitude to be “still alive /on a day without too much grief.” Brewster teases Sidney in several poems, providing a gentle foil to his Astrophel and Stella with her own wry sonnets. Ever practical in her humility, she constructs an entire poem (“Images of Exile) from her “misreading” of Patrick Lane.
“The Rivalry of Angels” suggests a motive for the ribbing:
How to test voices?
How to test dreams and visions?
How to be wary of angels
and yet keep the door open to them?
Since another reading always lurks in the page, be careful with your telling. In the Hebrew version of Jacob’s dream, whether God is positioned “beside Jacob / or above him” depends on one letter and “letters create the world.” Before letters? Sounds, smells, memories, and desires. Keep asking, and you must eventually deal with the matter of creation.
And so Brewster seeks connections “to our once and future footprints” in the signifying power of myth (“Children Dancing,” “In the Sukkah,” “Rosh Hashanah”)—that “reminder / of the old journey through the wilderness.” At this point in her journey, Brewster is too aware that the rituals of myth also remind us that human existence is a temporary “shelter.” Though not unafraid (“Dark Cottage”), she will not shirk from any part of the cycle of creation, accepting that death, though “never a tidy matter” at least deserves a good poem or two (“December Pigeon,” “December Dreams of Spring,” The Angel of Death,” for starters). And a good laugh—the angel of death a wolf in grandma’s nightcap.
It may be too easy to cite the section “Amidah” as reason for such boldness, implying a confidence born of new faith. Yet, impelled as Brewster is toward the next threshold, by experiencing faith in a creator she sees beauty in death (“Blessing in Autumn”). How fitting, then, that Brewster would choose this most important of Jewish prayers for the poetic expression of her faith. A communal supplication, the Amidah also allows for private prayer. And so, in the midst of this prayerful reminder of Edenic ancestors, with its wonderful image of books being shaken from the branches of the tree of knowledge, the voice of “The Invisible” sounds in the “the whisper of infinite space / between the stars,” amid Brewster’s parenthetical puzzling over signification:
(There are so many nicknames,
pet names for earth and sky,
the universe beyond,
And yet Brewster struggles with faith: “It’s difficult to bless winter.”
Like that other Amidah, these are poems to read while standing, stepping backward and forward, “on the solid floor” (“Midsummer Morning”). These are poems that rehearse the “difficult freedom” of redemption. Not the adamant redemption of the born again, quips Brewster, but just “maybe our prayers too / will be answered.”
- Divergent Perspectives on Grace and Memory by Sharanpal Ruprai
Books reviewed: Valley Sutra by Kuldip Gill, Enter the Chrysanthemum by Fiona Lam, Fish Bones by Gillian Sze, and Reticent Bodies by Moez Surani
- Poet on Point by Brian Henderson
Books reviewed: Ursa Major by Robert Bringhurst
- Permanence de la fissure by Élise Lepage
Books reviewed: Poèmes anglais: Le pays de personne: La fissure de la fiction by Patrice Desbiens
- Orbiting Toronto by Heather Smyth
Books reviewed: Thirsty by Dionne Brand
- Liminal Voices by Catherine Rainwater
Books reviewed: Bloodlines: Odyssey of a Native Daughter by Janet Campbell Hale and Feminist Readings of Native American Literature: Coming to Voice by Kathleen M. Donovan
MLA: Iwama, Marilyn. Wary of Angels. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 108 - 110)
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