Familiar and Strange

  • E. Alex Pierce (Author)
    Vox Humana. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Jennifer Rahim (Author)
    Redemption Rain . TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Stephanie Bolster (Author)
    A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Moberley Luger

These books, by three established women poets, showcase new lyric poetry published in Canada. Together these collections span diverse histories, geographies, and mythologies; they deliver multiple worlds in poetry—our everyday world, as well as worlds hidden, imagined, and lost.

Stephanie Bolster’s A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth was my favourite—although I should disclose that Bolster is a mentor and friend. It has been thirteen years since Bolster won the Governor General’s Award for her first book (White Stone, 1998) and her poetry keeps getting smarter, more assured, more surprising. The thrill of this collection, her fourth, is in the way it perches (and invites readers to perch) so precariously in places at once familiar and strange. The poems are mainly set in zoos, botanical gardens, aviaries, and museums, places themselves balancing the natural and artificial. Bolster’s voice here is forthright and sure, yet also subtly distant. Indeed, the perspective in the poems is often elusive: who is the perceiver? the perceived? In one early poem, Comfort, a man who rides the metro daily, / open-palmed stares, almost longingly, through the glass of a chimpanzee’s cage at the warm hay and tires, oranges inside. As readers, we’re watchers here too, onlookers. We watch the chimpanzee and, surely, we’ve watched the man opening a hand to us on the metro. As the poem ends, the man is, once again, the one looking on. Bolster closes with this startling image: [u]nderneath, the metro runs / faces he could spend an hour watching / if the earth were made of glass. Bolster’s readers will appreciate poetry that transports them to such curious places and so delicately suggests, as a floor made of glass might suggest, new ways of seeing the world.

E. Alex Pierce’s Vox Humana also transports the reader: this collection spans generations of memory and centuries of intertextual worlds. These poems teem with personal, historical, and mythical stories that begin on Canada’s east coast (Pierce lives in East Sable River, Nova Scotia) and venture into Hamlet’s Denmark, Madama Butterfly’s Japan and mythical Greece. The first poem, a sort of ars poetica, stands out for its launching of the collection so dynamically. With attention to sound, and to the poetic project itself, the poem begins, Down in the dunes is a language place, lost U-vowel of the sound turned round, / guts of the rabbit strewn over ground. The three sections that follow are quieter, but maintain a concern for place, memory, and the lyric voice. The vox humana of the book’s title refers specifically to a pipe organ reed that, in its sound, resembles the human voice; it also represents, for Pierce, an investment in tradition, music, and speech (the title poem begins The thing which has no voice, refuses to speak, is a thing / flayed and pitiless). The vox humana is also an emblem of Pierce’s preoccupation with absence. This organ reed, flayed and pitiless, only resembles, cannot ever actually be, the human voice. At the end of the book, a Notes and Sources section glosses the multiple intertexts while also revealing how many of the poems were written after other poems or in memoriam to the dead. In fact, many lives haunt this book—not only the famous characters of Shakespeare and Greek myth, but also lives close to the poet. This is a collection full of history and memory, and with the absences that produce them.

Trinidadian poet Jennifer Rahim’s Redemption Rain is also a book of history and memory; some poems weigh heavily, especially in poems addressing the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, while others offer moments of wit, irony, and play. The opening poem, Earthquake 2010, one of the strongest, brings the poet to Haiti. Here, even before the earthquake, she sees [e]verywhere rubble, white dust/ like an upturned sepulcher. A few pages later, in an An Ode to SPAM, Rahim writes of emails that promis[e] the revelation / of amazing details / once you click attachments. These excerpts represent the collection’s larger sweep across the sublime (memory, redemption, prayer, blessing) and the mundane (email, a continental breakfast, L’Oréal hair colour). The Caribbean Review of Books has suggested that Rahim is well on her way to becoming Trinidad and Tobago’s best poet at home. Canadians may also want to claim Rahim for ourselves for poems set in Toronto, at the St. Lawrence Market, or in the glare of CTV. When the speaker, reading a travel brochure, recognizes the holidays from where I came, the reader is reminded of the many worlds we all inhabit: the dream and the real, the present and the past, the near and the far, the familiar and the strange.

This review “Familiar and Strange” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 139-41.

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