Garden Metaphors

Reviewed by Susie DeCoste

These three poetry collections printed by small presses in Atlantic Canada cover two distinct stages of a poet’s career: novice and expert. As Heather Nolan’s poetic career continues, I believe that the beginning explorations of identity and family history in her debut collection Land of the Rock: Talamh an Carraig will evolve and iterate into the more nuanced crafting of language that we find in Shane Neilson’s and Sue Sinclair’s recent work. Neilson and Sinclair are two writers performing at their highest level.


That said, Nolan’s collection is indeed strong: a deeply felt and well-rendered evocation of island life in Newfoundland and Ireland. In exploring these two locales, the speaker considers the potential hidden histories within and upon the landscapes, dialects, and ways of life. One of Nolan’s strengths is in the lilting cadence of many of the poems, so that in reading them silently, they seem to come alive in my ears: “the difficulty of translation / within the same language— / is it colloquialism or circumstance, // the way a Newfoundlander says / yes, yup, on the sharp / intake of breath—” (60).


The poem “Picnics with Ancestors” creates a beautiful picture of a father-daughter relationship in a shifting culture. The father is still working the Nolan Meadow, even though it is overgrown with scrub and not fit for a picnic:


                        turning back I see my father lift a stone,

. . . but when he sees me watching, he says

‘help the old fellas out. keep the stones from the field.’ (25)


The speaker has much affection for this gesture of affinity with “this land our ancestors worked” (24).


While Nolan’s work is good, when read next to Shane Neilson’s collection, You May Not Take the Sad and Angry Consolations, readers recognize a leap in poetic experience and craft. Neilson’s poems echo and expand phrases and lines, so that with each iteration, meaning expands and grows; poems change tack and gain new traction in language itself, really working to expand possible structures and implications.


The flow of the collection is significant; poems speak to and from each other, and there are echoes and motifs that reappear and continue. The title is one such motif that becomes a layered palimpsest as we see it morph into a litany of possibilities for the concept of a poem:


You may not take the condemned thing and condemn it again.

You may not take the sad and angry consolations.

You may not take the orientation to the sun, the spiritual photosynthesis that is not moral.

You may not take the old concept of soul and rip it from my wish.

You may not take the shame-trick, the revision of this world that shall be dismantled

(but not shamed) for being a beautiful solution to Want. (13)


Even the name for a “famous American art gallery” becomes “yet another archive of the sad and angry consolations” (26), so that readers must rethink what came before.


Many of Neilson’s poems directly address the speaker’s children in their future, adult manifestations. In “Protection-Trick,” the speaker wrestles with the urge to protect his children even as he interrogates the concept of protection. Either way, whether protection works or not, whether the children want it or not, the speaker laments: “I am working towards my death” (31). So, ultimately, there is no real protection a father can offer.


I love how Neilson completely turns his metaphors and images upside down, so that readers are invited to come along and notice all the paradoxes inherent in the poems and in life. Note for instance the way Neilson plays with the connotations of flowers:


When I say Transform, the outcome cannot be controlled.

Otherwise, I would know too much—

nothing of flowers


or of worship, for the flowers

grow beyond the altar

and the stumbling man (40)


The speaker sees himself as “the stumbling man” (40), painting a broad picture around himself as just a portion of the world and certainly not its center. It’s as if he is attempting to divest himself of “self,” while clinging to it only in as much as it serves his children. The flowers which continue to grow through and beyond worship above are interrogated in a following poem:


garden metaphors are

distractions meant to lull

you down the path; keep


your face to the fire, think instead of city.

Think grave, think the crest

of a wave that shoves


your head five fathoms deep (41)


Neilson urges readers to question and reconsider the things we know, even the things he tells us.


Turning to Sinclair’s Almost Beauty: New and Selected Poems, readers are treated to thirty pages of new poems and selections from her previously published books, as well as an essay by Ross Leckie. One new series of poems takes a nuanced stance against the proposal of a New Brunswick tungsten mine through a deep-dive into the metaphors and properties of tungsten. Sinclair’s treatment of tungsten is resonant of earlier works reprinted in Almost Beauty, including “Red Pepper,” “Refrigerator,” and “The Pitcher,” poems that defamiliarize and personify objects that otherwise hide in the mundane backdrop of our lives. As for the tungsten, “the filaments, ruminate / as they perform their tricks for us, summoning light / as if from the ether” (32).


Sinclair’s description of the reproductive lives of fungi in the poem “Sex Ed Just Got Weirder” encapsulates the properties of her poems very well:


passing genetic

material across species, trading even nuclei,

so that what it is to begin or end, to be one thing or another

gets woozy : taxonomies blur, genetic trees branch off the page

and into three dimensions, reach into my gut to ask

who am I anyway . . . (42)


Like Sinclair’s work, the fungi bring elements together, take them apart, and make this reader see them anew.


Several motherhood poems bring to question the responsibilities of being part of the creation and care for a new life. While Neilson’s parent-speaker is full of adoration and immobilising self-doubt, Sinclair presents a completely otherworldly view of motherhood. She presents a Cartesian view of a pregnant mother who explores the future as if body and mind were separate entities. In “Ultrasound,” the baby “seems caught in a glow we’re barely privy to,” and “she seems basked / in whatever that downpour of light is” (45). The child inside another poem is a concept that calls forth wonder:


I wonder what her child will know of me

and what thoughts those thoughts will have then [. . .]

what new selves they may devise (46)


This line also echoes the fungus poems where newer and newer possibilities continue to emerge.  As a whole, Sinclair’s new and selected works present a sort of template for a beginning Atlantic poet such as Nolan, and shows us what feats are possible in two decades of continual work on the craft of poetry.

This review “Garden Metaphors” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Mar. 2023. Web.

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