Poems New and Old

  • Catherine Graham
    The Celery Forest. Buckrider Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Susan McCaslin
    Into the Open: Poems New and Selected. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Seymour Mayne (Translator)
    In Your Words: Translations from the Yiddish and the Hebrew. Ronald P. Frye & Co. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Kilby Smith-McGregor
    Kids in Triage. Buckrider Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by David Johnstone

Catherine Graham takes us into a kind of fantasy world in her most recent poetry collection, The Celery Forest. The back cover compares this world to Narnia, Neverland, Oz, and Wonderland, and we should note that all of these worlds are escapes from the real one. This is the case here too: Graham takes us to her imagined world from the very real world of her diagnosis of breast cancer. Here “the pea beneath / your mattress” is not just an impediment to sleep. In reading this string of spare, minimalist imaginings (no poem is longer than a single page), I am reminded of the tragic fantasy of Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia (a world I was extremely touched by in childhood). All varieties of birds are found in Graham’s collection (gulls, pigeons, chickens, owls)—she calls them “human-watchers,” establishing a kind of audience—and she tells us “she holds birds in her bones.” She speaks to an owl and tells him to “pluck the tumour out of [her] breast / with your sharp, curved talons— // let the only thing that spreads be your wings.” It’s images like these that are so affective and so carefully and delicately conjured that they stick to the walls of the reader’s mind and slowly drip down. Their haunting beauty can feel exactly like “a Zeppelin record playing / backwards.” With titles like “The Royal Mole Catcher,” Graham shows that she isn’t afraid to play. Her ideas are witty yet tragic. In a poem called “Deciduous,” she thinks of autumn’s falling leaves as she waits “for breasts that never come back.” We find a world and a moment that was “there before / and there thereafter.”

One should feel the utmost gratitude for translators. Arguably, they have one of the toughest jobs in writing. They are the movers of the literary world, and they do heavy lifting indeed. We should be incredibly thankful for Seymour Mayne’s work in bringing us some of the best Yiddish and Hebrew poets otherwise unknown to us anglophones. Rachel Korn, Melech Ravitch, Abraham Sutzkever, Moshe Dor, and Shlomo Vinner are all skilfully and carefully brought over to English. This is no small undertaking, and there is no small reward for the reader. From Korn, we are given her thoughts on composition: “I fear that first line of a poem, / the sharp slash / that decapitates.” From Sutzkever, we are given that painful hope: “Because he wanted to smuggle a flower / through the ghetto’s gate / my neighbour paid the price of seven lashes . . . that’s how much he wanted it to flourish.” This is a book of delicately handled poems. Mayne wants these words, these poems, to flourish. As a Montrealer, he understands the complicated history of languages in that city and in Canada (we should think of him in the great line of Jewish writers in Montreal, such as A. M. Klein, Irving Layton, and Leonard Cohen). This is an insider translation in that it is not of the voyeur, but of the subject. He keeps tradition alive, fresh, and distinct. This is a poetry worth learning the language(s) for, but we can settle in good faith for the intimate intelligence of Mayne’s translations.

With poems pulled from her early chapbooks, her 1995 debut Locutions, and her most recent work, Lineage, poet Susan McCaslin is back with a book for fans new and old. Into the Open: Poems New and Selected is a vast collection of beautiful trinkets for readers to adorn their thoughts with. These are poems that one might copy out (or, dare I say, rip out) so that one can carry them on one’s journey through life (in wallets, purses, jacket pockets). McCaslin accompanies us just as much as we accompany her on her spiritual and artistic journeys. She writes of Christianity (notably in dialogue with William Blake) in such ways that turn and, at times, disturb our thoughts and notions: “How long / till the Magdalene undoes her / hair and Christ blazes in the sev- / ered amoeba brain?” Of special interest to those already acquainted with McCaslin’s writing are her new poems, which are particularly skilful. We find that “the language” still “winks back.” The pleasure that comes from her poetry is one of meditation. In this collection, McCaslin’s work is alive and well: “Gender explodes, metaphors meld, / as bridegroom receives the bride.”

Theatre artist and writer Kilby Smith-McGregor doesn’t let genre hold her back in Kids in Triage. In her debut poetry collection, she confidently finds her own footing and style. The book begins with a kind of nightmarish nursery rhyme, the speaker chanting and repeating the title, “black matter, black matter,” and then “[s]ummer screamed like we all scream. Ice cream; rope burn. / Rope burn; gasoline.” The collection is cogent, each poem leading into the next with masterful traces and repetitions. Smith-McGregor’s language packs a punch, and it’s one of the main draws of her poetry: “Neck hung low, pulse threads distal in extremis protanopic / both placental, ectoplasmic.” Smith-McGregor’s phrasing is never boring, but at times it risks being too busy, too chaotic (something some readers may find appealing in itself). At her best, Smith-McGregor complicates binaries. With references to Descartes (among other scientists and “big names” of literature), the poet interrogates the mind/body division. These physical/psychological interruptions inform the content and the style. Hers is a poetry of contradiction. Her words tear each other apart. It is a distinct pleasure to find a poet at the start of her career, and I look forward to following her work as she develops it.

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