Defining Moments

Reviewed by Tina Trigg

Originating in Western Canada and spanning five centuries in content, these three contemporary poetry collections boast definable narrative arcs, roaming across oceans, biographies, and genres to create resonance rich in detail.

Vittoria Colonna: Selections is an artistic gem from its period cover to storied content. Partnering with mathematician and photographer Robert Moody, Jan Zwicky introduces the spiritual sonnets of mid-sixteenth-century poet, Vittoria Colonna. Ten of the 103 Rime Spirituali are reproduced in Italian with Zwicky’s English open-form lyric on the facing page; these poetic pairs are interleaved with Moody’s black-and-white photographs of Josep Maria Subirachs’ “Passion Facade.” Fluidly moving among languages, sculpture, photography, and poetic forms, the response-pieces evoke layers of meaning with lingering effect, emphasizing the onlooker’s role.

Carefully identifying her own poems as “versions” and not translations, Zwicky redirects attention to the “remarkable character” of Colonna’s verse rather than its formal style. A deft introduction unveils Colonna as the first established female poet in Renaissance Italy—known for her ardour, poetic gifting, and religious reformism—as well as “the last, and perhaps greatest, love of [Michelangelo’s] life.” These notable artists, Zwicky contends, shared an understanding of life as “a passionate endeavour to come to grips with spiritual truth.” While praising Colonna’s “personal vision” of spiritual matters as vivifying her writing, Zwicky bluntly distances her own interest as curiosity-driven. Nonetheless, her lyrics share the “directness and intensity” that Zwicky admires in Colonna’s sonnets; these are beautiful pieces: “In silence — // the tears cut gutters in his [disciple John’s] face;” “let the sweet nails be my quills / his blood my ink;” when looking on the Virgin, “it’s certain that I am moved.”

Striking in their simplicity, Moody’s black-and-white photographs of the sculpted human figures culminate in “the final transcendence.” Gracefully curved, “the view upwards into the light-filled central spire of the basilica” interrupts the volume’s sharp lines before concluding with its only recurrent image: a stark robe-clutching, mournful, yet expectant figure. Through careful layering of complementary texts and photos, the structural interplay enhances the understated art of Colonna, Zwicky, and Moody.

Like Zwicky, Melissa Morelli Lacroix crafts poems responding to the complex negotiations of love. A three-part volume centering around Frederic Chopin, Robert and Clara Schumann, and Claude Debussy, A Most Beautiful Deception recounts death and suffering woven through with the irreplaceable moments of life and the sweet sting of memories. Reaching to the early-nineteenth century, the poems weave lives of artists, mourners, and admirers while modelling the composers’ musical scores in form. This demanding combination includes extensive accompanying materials—tables of musical and poetic forms, biographical details, sources—discreetly appended. (Notably, the volume has been successfully adapted for stage-performance.)

Although emphasizing degeneration and death—physical, social, psychological—the poems maintain vibrancy, often crystallizing sound, light, colour, and emotion. Memories are subtly evoked through objects: patio-tomato plants smelling “like life,” their fruit “still green when you left,” styrofoam cups “to remember / the night I bumped into you,” bedside bouquets, glowing refrigerator bulbs, and silence hanging between notes. Emphasizing place, the poems explore exteriority and interiority of person: the mourner, the bulimic, the dying, the lover. Taking inspiration from Robert Schumann’s musings about motives for composition, the succinct middle section structurally follows Clara’s piano variations of his “Opus 20” to create a mediation of the aspirations of public and private life in a tender musical dialogue. Despite its complexity and range, Deception is remarkably accessible, managing to humanize musical giants and to harmonize life’s glory and brutality while avoiding sentimentalism.

Similarly inspired by a quotation, Alex Leslie’s debut poetry collection, The things I heard about you, enacts John Thompson’s line, “I know how small a poem can be.” Thirteen title pages with black-and-white images—headphones, a child’s desk, a fingerprint—help to situate readers in this wide-ranging work. Each sequence introduces a prose poem which is strategically minimized, following the textual prompt: “smaller.” The shrinking poems challenge “normal” social boundaries, assumptions, and discards—both material and human.

Focussed on human integrity, The things is a reclamation project enacted through loss. The title itself emphasizes ostracism and individual complicity: “Dumpster diver, scrounger, hoarder, fairy-tale / monster, the things I heard about you.” Similarly, several pieces highlight class conflict, silenced populations, entrapment, risk, defensiveness, and vulnerability while seeking release. Ultimately, Leslie’s poems reveal the ambiguities of language through its limitations, offering a razor’s edge of thought sliced from an admirably broad landscape. In differing modes, Zwicky, Lacroix, and Leslie create slender but expansive volumes, emphasizing perspective, mutability, and the defining moments of suffering, loss, and love.

This review “Defining Moments” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 128-29.

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