Materializing Finality

Reviewed by Lorraine York

These three collections by Canadian women poets probe the complicated interactions between distance and intimacy, particularly as they bear upon the question of how one can give witness to that which has vanished, or will imminently or inevitably vanish. All three poets write with awareness of the losses that accumulate with age, but ultimately each turns that awareness into a broader question of how to understand loss as a poetic and embodied presence. Wendy Donawa’s website trumpets the words of the American poet Mary Oliver: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?” All three poets attempt to frame an answer.

Lorna Crozier’s seventeenth book of poems, What the Soul Doesn’t Want, answers the question, as the title of her collection would suggest, by reference to negatives: what one plans not to do with one’s one, wild, precious life. Her opening poem, “Not the Tongue,” brings Crozier’s characteristically smart, caustic wit and intelligence to bear on the question of facing, and writing, mortality, wondering if perhaps we give too much credence to articulation and not quite enough to sensation. Noting that it is the butterfly’s feet that “taste” the “nectar,” the speaker concludes: “We give the tongue / too much credence. It makes us / loose and daft.” The embodied articulations of touch, instead, occupy Crozier’s attention; referring in another poem to the macular degeneration and growing blindness of her partner, poet Patrick Lane, the speaker observes, “For him, I don’t get old. / His fingers, chapped from gardening, sand my skin, / . . . I am made beautiful by loss.”

Wendy Donawa—writing from the opposite end of a career from Crozier—in her first collection, Thin Air of the Knowable, likewise probes the condition of vanishing, and, like Crozier, finds in loss a surprising affective mixture. Writing of a cancer diagnosis, the speaker reflects that “Somehow catastrophe’s patina / glosses our now of pleasure: / raku still glowing from the kiln.” Unlike Crozier, though, whose brilliance largely involves the seemingly easeful way in which her speakers glide from deep philosophical questions to the wryly circumstantial quotidian and back again, Donawa sometimes moves too obviously into the realm of Deeper Thought. Often, in such poems, description of the natural world serves as an opening springboard for those deeper musings, and when these poems are collected together, this proceeding from observed natural phenomena to meaning becomes repetitive. Some of the strongest poems in Donawa’s collection are those that experiment with (relatively) fixed forms. Her “Ghazal” powerfully brings together daily minutiae and deeper abysses, and the form eases the transition between the two, since the ghazal has a long tradition of uniting love or beauty and separation, loss, longing.

A noteworthy aspect of Thin Air of the Knowable is Donawa’s concern with issues of imperial contact, particularly the history of slavery in the Caribbean. Donawa, who lived for a number of years in Barbados, is intensely aware of the politics of place and race. Her poem “Testimony of Subject No. 22,” inspired by international researchers’ discovery of genes “associated with antibiotic resistance” in Yanomami villagers in Venezuela, tells the story of this contact from the perspective of one of the test subjects, who observes of the visiting scientists: “They seemed to lack a layer of skin— / so pale, smelling not quite human . . . . But they did not know how to behave.” (One thinks here of Thomas King’s “A Coyote Columbus Story,” in which Coyote, surveying Columbus and his crewmen, concludes, “They act as if they have no relations.”) In another poem, Donawa’s speaker reflects on her own strange (i.e., not neutral) whiteness: “I knew this place, comfort amid discomfort, / though sometimes saw my pale face in shop windows / . . . history’s sins stamped on my forehead.” Though the final line flirts with cliché, Donawa’s awareness that the material effects of imperialism do not vanish but remain, embodied, links her contact poems to her poems of personal loss and grief; as a speaker of another poem asserts, “What has vanished can yet be known / in the clarifying day.”

Those lines could serve as the credo of Molly Peacock’s fascinating collection The Analyst, which ponders deeply how the vanished can be known. These are poems that probe Peacock’s close and longstanding relationship with her analyst in the aftermath of the latter’s devastating stroke, observing the dance between distance and intimacy occasioned by such changed circumstances. In “Fret Not,” the speaker tells us how she finally worked up the courage to ask for one of her analyst’s paintings the first time she visited her after the stroke, and was taken aback by an invitation to view the paintings in her former analyst’s bedroom. In a brilliant stanza, Peacock takes us inside that intimate space, rendered more intimate still by the force of traumatic events: “Red blanket like a hemorrhage contained / after a time bomb exploded your brain.”

A recurring image in Peacock’s The Analyst is the act of jumping into a gorge or crevasse, often associated with approaching the crumbling edge of loss, psychosis, grief. In poem after poem, it becomes clear that it is the relationship between these two women, its admixture of professional distance and profound intimacy, that has kept the speaker out of the abyss: “Thank you for simply standing / as I learned how to stand on the sand.”

As Peacock’s arresting image of standing on sand forcefully tells us, loss is both a falling away and a coming to presence. Crozier, Donawa, and Peacock all explore the paradoxical materiality of loss, the way that loss shapes us and is marked on our bodies and in our minds. As Peacock sagely reflects in closing, “Only when / something’s over can its shape materialize.”

This review “Materializing Finality” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 142-143.

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