Family, History, Place

  • Lisa Young
    When the Earth. Quattro Books (purchase at
  • Dina E. Cox
    small flames. Signature Editions (purchase at
  • Naomi McIlwraith
    kiyâm. Athabasca University Press (purchase at
  • Nora Gould
    I see my love more clearly from a distance. Brick Books (purchase at
  • Rachel Thompson
    Galaxy. Anvil Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Jan Lermitte

The books reviewed here represent the work of five women writers from across Canada, and a “first” for each—their first books of published poems. Although the style of these poets is diverse, their themes are similar; family, history, and place figure prominently. The volumes range from minimalist poetry which celebrates the wonders of nature and contemplates relationships, to complex and technically accurate depictions of life and death on an Alberta ranch, to bilingual poems that examine language and culture.

Lisa Young’s collection, When the Earth, begins with reminiscences of childhood that capture the innocence and wonder found in daily activities. Central to the narratives are Young’s mother and her distinctive approach to domestic chores (including baking bread and gardening) completed in a simple and joyful way. Young’s poems are short meditations on the experiences that create a life and give it meaning. For Young, “Everything counts. Just to remember is enough. / Just to be here is enough.”

In contrast, Galaxy, by Rachel Thompson, recalls the painful memories of a childhood wrought by violence and mistrust. Winner of the First Book Competition sponsored by The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, Galaxy describes the impact of home, of where one comes from. Thompson reveals the harshness of small town life and the pain of family wounds and estrangement. In “Ultimatum” she writes: “I can’t I don’t / wish to speak to my mother. / I don’t believe the mere flight of time / is reason enough.” Thompson, like Young, has a minimalist style that emphasizes the rhythm of language and the power of emotions and senses. Although many of the poems express anger or hurt, Thompson also reveals her desire for love and a family of her own. She explores a wider range of emotional subjects than Young, and includes memories as well as humour and hope.

Dina Cox’s collection, small flames, offers readers more complexity and variety than the previous two. A specialist in Haiku, Cox melds emotions and images to create a nuanced depiction of family, place, art, and history. The second section of five in the collection, “Kaddish” offers a poignant illustration of the decline and death of her father, with all the resulting mixtures of emotions and memories: “Orphaned, I shook / hands with the stranger / I had become, and so / prepared myself for / the rest of my life.” Cox is keenly interested in the stories of her family. However, she also widens her scope to include broader topics such as the impact of divorce, the power of music, the cultural problem of entitlement, and even the tragedy of Canadian soldiers who are killed in action. Cox looks back from life’s experiences with wisdom and compassion.

Nora Gould’s evocative collection of poems, I see my love more clearly from a distance, offers readers an enticing, often disturbing, glimpse into the life of ranchers in Central Alberta. Gould, who is trained as a veterinarian and volunteers in wildlife rehabilitation, brings her technical understanding of anatomy, illness, and injury into her imagery. She is unafraid to uncover the uncertainties of love and marriage, the sadness and loss that illness brings, the precariousness of farming, the harsh realities of death. These are not easy poems. Moreover, Gould’s honest declarations reveal a life story defined by hardship. Of her marriage she writes: “Buckled / to the load of our days, we live with the badger / of again—our muteness, our words / brace, peck and quarter.” Whether describing the hunt for a missing cow or “willow branches soaked supple in rain water,” Gould captures the essence of her home and the landscape in a compelling, complicated way. Sometimes clear and simple, other times elusive and cryptic, Gould’s poems push readers to consider that there are many ways to live. In “Mom” Gould writes simply: I’ve gone to Joel’s / to boil deer skulls / back before 11:30 / love / Farley.” This macabre theme of death appears in many forms: as a result of illness, by accident, by hunting, and by a veterinarian’s hand. Love, too, is described as given, lost, longed for, and un-returned. Gould dissects religion, sex, and war; she turns them over like the pieces of fabric in the quilts she constructs.

Finally, kiyâm, by Naomi McIlwraith, offers readers a challenge of another kind. Writing in both English (âkayâsîmowin) and Cree (nêhiyawêwin), McIlwraith raises questions about the relationship between family and history, listeners and speakers, culture and language. The stylized image of plants with vari-coloured roots on the cover of the collection suggests McIlwraith’s own mixed heritage of Cree, Ojibwe, Scottish and English. She acknowledges her uncomfortable position—as one who has learned to read and write a language that is traditionally oral—but emphasizes that she learned Cree as a way to offer tribute to her father’s bilingualism and her mother’s Métis heritage. For McIlwraith, family is closely bound with language, history, and culture. “I mean no wrong in writing / or speaking your language. I mean / to understand you on your terms, in your words,” she writes. McIlwraith praises her father for modeling a different way of living—for embracing cultural diversity. However, she also laments that he died before he could teach her more of thenêhiyawêwin language. McIlwraith’s volume is the most scholarly of the five texts. She includes a pronunciation guide to Cree, notes on the poems, a glossary, and a bibliography. McIlwraith’s poetry, like the groundbreaking work of Métis poet Louise Halfe, is best read with an eye to the glossary and a will to decipher her Cree references. Ultimately, the importance of her poetry is directly related to her persistence to ensure that nêhiyawêwin remains a living, writtenlanguage.

Each of these volumes contains poems that would add to meaningful discussion of the diversity found in Canadian literature. Representative of women of various ages and cultures, they share themes of place, of family, and of history.

This review “Family, History, Place” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 151-52.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.