Charmed

  • Rebecca Păpucaru
    The Panic Room. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Christine McNair
    Charm. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Julia McCarthy
    All the Names Between. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

In Julia McCarthy’s third poetry collection, All the Names Between, moments are captured, both fleeting and profound, to reveal the contrasts and connections around us. The poems feel meditative, often languid, as they explore death, silence, the natural world, and everything in between. McCarthy’s images are precise and often startling, from “mallows / the colour of gossip” appearing and then putting “their heads together like young girls,” to an evening opening “like the suitcase you think you’ve unpacked.” In this way, McCarthy upends the reader’s expectations of the natural world and how we witness it. Her poetic lens captures such experiences and their quiet dailiness in a prismatic manner.

Place becomes the core of many of the poems in All the Names Between, cataloguing a forest and its inhabitants—flora and fauna, specifically birds and bats—and the changes observed there. McCarthy approaches these subjects with clarity and reverence, as documented in “Last Rites,” where the speaker watches a hawk in the air as “he opens like a switchblade.” And while McCarthy’s language and imagery are lovely and engaging, the poems retain some kind of ambiguity, which very well may be the author’s intent, allowing for a contemplative in-between space. This elusive space might be announced in McCarthy’s lines, “every elegy has an ode at its centre / every ode has an elegy around the edges.”

Charm, the second collection from Ottawa poet Christine McNair, tackles subjects of conception, from literal pregnancy to the more figurative conception of art. The poems hover around an overarching theme of making and unmaking, but their expansiveness allows for each to remain distinct and precise. The collection is broken into five sections, each exploring in detail the various abstractions of conception, moving from orchid pollination through to handwork. McNair seamlessly moves between these varied subjects, offering tight images to surprise the reader. In “m,” McNair writes, “When she met him she was linen starched and white,” then quickly juxtaposes with the following line, “When she met him she was in a pale blue nightdress,” deftly showing the multitudes within the woman in the poem. This kind of ease and nuance with metaphor is apparent throughout the collection.

In the final section, “Shudder of Days,” McNair details pregnancy and motherhood in poems that challenge with their density and their interconnected images and language. In “Rose is extant,” the speaker, when talking about her baby daughter, says that “love bent back in fingerfuls,” and that a thimble “wretches the scent of milk.” Such unexpected images push the reader to consider the intricacies and challenges of maternal love. The collection asserts that a charm can “protect, inflict, or influence,” and McNair’s unwavering eye and clarity of vision do just that.

Rebecca Păpucaru’s first poetry collection, The Panic Room, explores identity and memory, family, and the chaos of the contemporary world. Păpucaru covers an impressive variety of subjects with both humour and empathy. She carefully balances her Eastern European Jewish ancestry and culture with her current Canadian experience, ultimately reflecting on the diaspora as containing multitudes. Yet Păpucaru keeps her poems specific, never drifting into easy generalizations. In “On Watching an Eastern Bloc Comedy,” she contrasts the academic excavation of film with her own complicated feelings about her family, highlighting both the intimacy and distance implied in artistic rendering: “Mud road. Sudden appearance of a goat. I’m one / generation apart from all this, and ashamed.” The speaker’s conflicted emotional response is rendered clearly in these spare, undecorated lines. Throughout the collection, Păpucaru’s language remains accessible, light, and airy, but there is a depth to the images that creates memorable poems.

The Panic Room often tackles memory, or the inability for memory to remain truthful. In “Retouched,” the speaker says, “My skin / has been retouched . . . How many years since // I was wed?” and then continues to interrogate the fact of a photograph against the wilfulness of memory, how it shifts and reshapes over time. Păpucaru connects the present and the past, the experience with the memory, for a layered and evocative look at these snapshots in time.

Păpucaru is also successful in employing humour to add levity throughout the collection. She uses a list poem to offer fantastical renderings of Greek gods in “Roll Call,” and she opens “If I Had Your Cock” with the lines: “I would use it as a mail opener, paperweight / Tetris partner.” And while these moments of humour are effective in and of themselves, Păpucaru utilizes them to further highlight the emotional core of the poems, seesawing between light and dark. This is an assured debut, showcasing stylistic experimentation and a strong poetic voice.



This review “Charmed” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 29 Aug. 2018. Web.

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