Reviewed by Emily Bednarz

The poetry in Carla Braidek’s 2016 collection, A Map in My Blood, showcases Braidek’s ability to connect the seemingly innocuous (and yet deeply profound) moments of everyday life to the broader patterns of time, nature, and ancestry. In the opening piece of the collection, moments such as children playing in a sandbox, or the speaker visiting different friends and cities, are aligned with the larger-scale passing of time: “castles dissolve in the slow / rains of summer,” while “Trish and I wove between children / and cars on our way to the park.” Similarly, in “A Matter of Waiting,” the scene of the speaker setting the table with her son mirrors the movements of the natural world, as “it’s all a matter of waiting / while the tree grows roots then branches.” The indiscernible fabric of time, the interconnectedness of the natural world, and the lingering presence of ancestral spirits (which come to form “a map in my blood”) are also reflected in the objects that surround the speaker, which carry the weight of memory: the “glass mouths” of milk and beer bottles near an abandoned ’65 Ford “take the wind / to form words” of “all our lives / being sung.” Each poem in A Map in My Blood evokes a sense of “peak experience”—where the metaphysical, even mystical, can be found in the mundane—offering a glimpse into the mind of an attuned and highly skilled poet.

Translated by Canadian collaborators Patrick Friesen and Per Brask, Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments is a provoking and densely emotive collection by Danish poet Ulrikka S. Gernes. Gernes’ poetry is inflected with the sounds and images of the city, creating a “frayed opus” that reflects the speaker’s longing, desires, feelings of alienation, and need for human connection and intimacy. For example, as the speaker bicycles through rush hour in Copenhagen, she observes in the sky “a tear in the blue / and there you are and there’s my daughter, the strings, the wind instruments.” She concludes by asking “have I loved, have I loved, have I loved enough.” Many other poems in the collection similarly connect the sounds, sights, and artifacts of the city (“the sirens howl, columns of dust and oblivion”) in order to interrogate the nature of time and memory, and the capacity for human connection in a seemingly alienating urban environment. The collection asks: how can we connect with, comprehend, or sympathize with the consciousness of an/other without appropriating their experiences? In other words, how can we ethically practice compassion? Gernes and her translators convey these complicated questions as the speaker criticizes her own “desire to fill a void, to fit / my body into the shape of someone else’s solitude.” Through nomadic wanderings across the lines of place and memory, Gernes’ collection portrays a complex, flawed, grieving, and passionate subject, managing to capture uncomfortably familiar feelings while wrenching open new and innovative avenues of poetic perspective and expression.

Mary Maxwell’s Wind Leaves Absence charts the poet’s autobiographic experiences of loss, using poetics as a means of mapping the limitations of language when it comes to the incomprehensible nature of grief. The collection is divided into three sections (Father, Brothers, and Others), but what unites the poetry is a repeated focus on language: the use, loss, and failure of words. The speaker’s father is diagnosed with dementia, and his illness slowly robs him of his ability to use and understand language. While the pen was “once an extension of his hand,” he eventually “has no words,” losing his ability to speak entirely. Similarly, the speaker’s words are described as “inadequate”; paradoxically, however, the speaker uses words to process and honour the lives she has lost. There is a tragic beauty in the way the speaker dissects her father’s increasing dementia: she attempts to find hope, lightness, or ability within him as his mind and body slip away, but these efforts are often quickly contradicted with the grim reality of his advancing condition. While she indicates that his brain is “a house, anywhere / its windows / wide open,” a few pieces later, he has “moved down the corridor of darkness . . . behind closed doors / windows that don’t open.” It is a privilege to share such deeply intimate subject matter with the poet, and though the collection repeatedly emphasizes the inability for words to capture grief, one cannot help but feel a sense of cathartic release upon finishing this collection.

This review “Memory/Loss” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 132-133.

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