Beautiful Thieves

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

Writers are often called thieves, stealing images and fragments of conversations, mining both their own experiences and the experiences of those around them. Writers look to the past, to historical figures, and to moments as inspiration. Writers reimagine, reinvent, resuscitate the voices that have long disappeared.

The three poets reviewed here, Charmaine Cadeau, Kate Cayley, and Sadiqa de Meijer, are all fine thieves. Each author explores the past to comment on the present, utilizing startling imagery and precise language to recreate these interior worlds.

In Placeholder, Cadeau’s second poetry collection, the author explores the concept of the placeholder, mining that overlap of presence and absence, through sharp twists of language between lines of verse. The “shifting terrain” of the collection comes not only through the subjects that Cadeau chooses to explore—from domestic interiors to the prevalent themes of navigation and the nautical—but also through her exploration of form; Cadeau uses lyrical narratives and prose poems, even the visual poem, experimenting with language and erasure. Much of the collection is conversational in tone, echoing confessions and whispers in warm kitchens with chipped countertops: here, we see the familiar, but also the surprising under Cadeau’s gaze. Cadeau further discovers ghosts in her work, both human and literary; in “Throwaways,” Cadeau tackles the familiar trope of the vanished girl, but in an entirely fresh way:

Aboard over dinner, we’ll talk only
about the warning given to tourists:
throw nothing overboard. How otherwise
a woman can spin anything, the heel
of a bone, into a skyboat, cast off.

Cayley’s first collection, When This World Comes to an End, is a captivating debut. Cayley uses alternate personas, fables, alternate modes of storytelling, and photography for inspiration in her poems. The collection is arranged in three sections, the first exploring historical figures, the second unidentified images in photographs, and the third myths and fairytales. She moves seamlessly between characters to tell their stories, both the well known (Emily Dickinson, Persephone) and the more obscure (the first man to die in the electric chair, archival photos). The poems are all concerned with the past, and the notion of history.

The images Cayley creates are arresting, leaving deep impressions on the reader’s mind. Themes and motifs carry from one poem to the next, offering insight to the complexity and interconnectedness between lives, eras, and experiences. Her experience in playwriting and the theatre is obvious, as her poems have a decidedly theatrical tone to them, both in approach to subject and the personas themselves. The poems in the final section, “Signs and Wonders,” offer a strong narrative presence, often employing different forms and structures for the poems. In “Three Cautions for Water,” a prose poem in three sections, each poem explores a different figure—real and imagined. This sequence appears clearly influenced by the darker side of fairy tales, reminiscent of Angela Carter’s work.

On Tuesday, it rained so much that when the girl came home, her mother had been eaten by a school of fish.

The girl knew this because her mother always wore a pink arm band on her left arm. When the girl paddled into her front yard she saw it caught on the lowest tree branch. It was savaged by the very small teeth of very small fish.

I first became aware of Sadiqa de Meijer’s work when she won the CBC poetry award for the sequence, Great Aunt Unmarried, and this collection echoes much of what we see in that winning poem: meandering images, sharp lines, glimpses into other lives. De Meijer explores the themes of childhood, belonging, motherhood, familial tensions through snapshots, and intimate explorations of subject. She uses short interludes, as narrative breaks, allowing them to exist in a purely visual form. From “camera, film”:

Three girls in salt dresses, ribbons
askew. Fierce shine on tired shoes. He’d told
them to clasp their hands and freeze.
Foto Modern embossed in gold.

De Meijer repeats certain images throughout—binoculars, kerchiefs, clocks—to create layers to the narrative, the overlapping of experience and response. And while de Meijer does not use a wide variety of forms or structure in her poems, her attention to detail creates dynamic pieces. Each image feels purposeful, carefully selected to propel the poem forward to its eventual conclusion. In Exhibit, de Meijer explores the idea of the other, of the outsider, of the experience just beyond grasp in an intimate and engaging way:

These seams fasten sleeves to skin and the trajectory
of free-fall was impossible to document
because of snow. Salwar kameez as nakedness.
Salwar kameez as parachute.

This review “Beautiful Thieves” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 134-35.

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