Poetry Museums

Reviewed by Jan Lermitte

When I was a child, museums seemed dreary places, with their dim lighting and long descriptions of objects on display. However, I have come to love them as storehouses or treasuries of creativity, which tell the stories of other times and people. The three collections of poetry reviewed here share a common reference to museums and, through intersections of trauma and transcendence, inspire readers with words, images, and stories.

Susan Elmslie, in an interview with rob mclennan, states, “In Museum of Kindness, I explore ‘genres’ familiar and hard to fathom: the school shooting, PTSD, parenting a child with a disability, awaiting a diagnosis.” Familiar? Perhaps. Hard to fathom? Absolutely. Elmslie uses mainly traditional forms, dramatic monologues, and lyric verse to examine and depict human experiences, both common and unusual, with expert description. In the titular poem, images of kindness (carefully peeling her son’s orange, feeling welcome at a neighbourhood party) remind us that, in spite of common associations of museums with instruments of torture, a museum of kindness with a “wing devoted to good intentions” would be worth visiting. Yet Elmslie also forces us to examine our culture and the violence inherent in human interaction—the lack of kindness. In that vein, the most powerful poems in the collection, such as “Trigger Warning,” are about the shooting that occurred in her own university workplace and the trauma that resulted. In the current culture of debate about gun control and school shootings, these poems are timely, relevant, and worthy of classroom discussion.

Douglas Barbour’s Listen. If is noticeably more experimental and playful than Elmslie’s work. Barbour describes his poetry as “rhythmically intense open form”; it resists the conventional use of punctuation by employing ampersands, single units of a pair of parentheses, and open spaces. If we described Barbour’s work as a museum, we might say that he also has many rooms and themes, connected through colour, wordplay (“If no ones present presence presents a vertical / movement . . .”), and allusions to art, the Bible, history, music, and politics, as well as images that mirror human experiences such as love, death, and the natural world. In my view, the most intriguing poems are those that pay “homage” to the work of artists found in museums—Impressionists such as Cézanne and Monet, and Canadian greats like Tom Thomson. These poems need to be read aloud, and although the collection leaves a strong impression, the resistance to syntax and clear meaning sometimes left me unsatisfied.

The Girls with Stone Faces was inspired by Arleen Paré’s visit to the National Gallery in Ottawa. Paré describes her initial surprise as she encounters works by two Canadian women sculptors, Frances Loring and Florence Wyle: “I was / struck stuck pinned to the air suspended . . .” and “I knew only distillate awe . . .” Paré combines traditional and innovative techniques with a compelling narrative that memorializes the two women, known as “The Girls” in the Toronto artistic community of the early 1900s, whose lives became entwined through their love of art, clay, and one another. The poems, separated into sections defined by “rooms,” connect to one another through repetition of phrases and descriptions of colour found in nature (grey, brown, black, white, blue, green): clay, birds, rural landscapes, and city streets. Paré also eloquently describes the abject poverty and familial rejection that Loring and Wyle experienced, and hints at reasons for their lack of recognition. Loring and Wyle have been largely ignored in the twentieth century, despite their significant artistic contributions and works displayed in public spaces. This reality hit home for me on a recent visit to the National Gallery when I found, to my disappointment, that only two sculptures by Loring were on display. Only one was marked with her name. Why only two? What about Wyle? Paré reminds us that “The Girls” deserve recognition. For me, questions that arise from this collection relate to what makes a piece of art “important” or popular. How do politics, gender, sexuality, and history define what is valued? Paré writes in “Heart’s Arrow,” “you don’t change art / it changes you.” These poems have changed my impressions of the value of the work of Canadian women artists. We must celebrate them by exhibiting and championing their work. Perhaps a “museum of kindness” could include the work of those who might be elided because of their gender, politics, or sexuality. I like to believe, as Elmslie claims, that “if it existed, we’d go.”

This review “Poetry Museums” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 128-129.

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