Music and Words

  • Jan Zwicky, Darren Bifford (Editor) and Warren Heiti (Editor)
    Cusp: Word Sonnets. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at
  • Seymour Mayne and Sebastian Frye (Illustrator)
    Chamber Music: The Poetry of Jan Zwicky. Ronald P. Frye & Co. (purchase at
Reviewed by Tina Northrup

Seymour Mayne’s Cusp: Word Sonnets can be read quickly, but ought to be considered slowly. At fourteen words apiece, each sonnet is petite enough to repeat instantly, like a koan or haiku, and can be turned like a worry stone held in a hand. Most are accompanied by an illustration by Sebastian Frye—one of a series of windows, empty of screens and maybe even of glass, offering views of an arbour and rooftop that change with the weather and seasons. The book’s design makes it both simple and pleasant to think on each sonnet while studying the sketch that sits below it on the page.

Unexpected similes startle and amuse, extending invitations for focused contemplation. A new morning is “dark / as / a / cat’s / heart”; birds forage of an evening “with / more / joyful / freedom / than / brokers, / bookkeepers / or / barristers.” Above a clear window that looks onto a sky of heavy clouds, the poem “Red Sea” exclaims:















Here as in many other pages throughout the collection, sonnet and illustration chime through the gracefulness of a half-suggested word—the faint susurrus of association that marries Miriam’s timbrels to the clatter of tambouriner that is heralded by the clouds in the drawing.

Readers accustomed to savouring lines both alone and in their contexts will likewise find pleasure and provocation to thought in Chamber Music: The Poetry of Jan Zwicky. The adept Introduction to the volume by Darren Bifford and Warren Heiti is attuned to some of the subtlest registers of Zwicky’s writing, and offers insights for which even her long-time readers will be grateful. Among these is their discussion of the relationship between lyric and narrative in Zwicky’s work, and their proposition that, in her poems, stories are conscripted into the service of metaphor—their sequential thoughts rendered polydimensional through integration into lyric wholes.

The inclusion of an abridged interview with Zwicky draws further attention to the polyphonic dynamics of the volume. Between Zwicky and her two editors, questions are posed and answered, propositions are made and challenged, and a clear sense of Zwicky’s poetic and philosophical investments emerges from the trio’s conversation. Not incidentally, this format gestures to both the many-voiced structure of Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy and Wisdom & Metaphor, as well as to the contrapuntal character of a number of her poems.

It could be said that Chamber Music presents Zwicky’s poetry in its most serious moments—when, as its editors might say, it is most clearly making “a contribution to philosophy.” Bifford and Heiti have evidently been strategic in their selections, but the volume is a just distillation of Zwicky’s poetics, and will no doubt be an illuminating introduction for readers who are not yet familiar with her work.

This review “Music and Words” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 133-34.

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