The Centre and Margins

Reviewed by Connie T. Braun

In these collections, two Canadian women address universal themes in distinctive voices. Joanne Epp, the daughter of Mennonites—a Protestant people of pacifism and migration—presents a sense of rootedness with Eigenheim. Rahat Kurd, with an inheritance of Kashmiri culture, the Koran, and Sufi poetry, portrays cosmopolitan restlessness in Cosmophilia. Each poet reflects on all that precedes us: people, tradition, language, place—tensile bonds, delicate as silk filaments, yet steely, spanning temporal and geographical distance. Reflecting on leaving and returning, on loss and endurance, each of these collections is a first for its writer.

“Eigenheim” is a German word meaning “one’s own home” and connoting centredness, the particular, an identity. But lyrically intertwined with the intimacy of Canadian rural small-town life are deep longings. In some of the poems, Epp inserts lines from Scripture and hymns from childhood, but always she invites the reader to see the familiar in new ways. In “How to Remember,” the speaker suggests that memory is not aroused by a photograph, but perhaps by objects made by another’s hands. A wooden rocking horse carved by a great-grandfather is the motif of remembrance. First the rocking horse is fixed in his memory, and when memory is absent, the material object stands in, imbued with a sense of his continued temporality. Throughout her collection, Epp evokes the ephemeral quality of loss, an enduring absence ever present.

Kurd also takes up this theme in Cosmophilia, the title word meaning the love of ornament, like the “circles and half circles, in tight arabesques or loose spirals” of a vintage shawl, exquisitely embroidered long ago by the poem’s speaker. She imagines that “[a]cross half a century / our fingers will touch.” The maker and the wearer of the shawl are connected, just as its material threads also represent the poet’s own work and future reader. Moreover, the poet’s work, like the embroiderer’s, is

demanding everything;

all her love and concentrations;

reminding her, warning her

about the cost of resplendence,

the hard solitude of the maker.

Kurd’s multilingualism, her reverence for “poems in Urdu” that her grandmother recited, add texture and sheen to her use of language in poems of modern urban Canadian life.

Narrative poems and their subjects are central in each work—Catherine, Elizabeth, and Dora in Eigenheim, and Fahmida Begam in the long poem “Return” and other poems in Cosmophilia. Kurd makes more stylistic innovations with language and form, such as experimenting with the ghazal. In “Blue Glass Tulips,” the tulips arranged in a vase serve as the poem’s addressor “when you still believed / an orderly God / would arrange to perfection all the affairs of your heart.” In free verse and prose poems, Epp’s syntax reflects her tone, mood, and well-wrought imagery. The “Catherine” poems, a series of ten about “a girl, woman perceptive to what light makes invisible,” traverse the dreamlike territory of the wandering mind. Both poets surprise with the unexpected, while at the same time proffering what we recognize within our own experience.

The two poets’ works, taken together, beg comparison with the award-winning Canadian poet Anne Michaels and her outstanding first collection, The Weight of Oranges. Kurd, like Michaels, employs the long poem in the exploration of history and heritage, with place names and dates (Wagah Border, 1948) as signposts to guide the reader between two worlds and into the spaces between the lines: “What wouldn’t I risk / for the Sindh of it / and the Hind of it.” Epp’s wisdom, tone of reverence, and composure of voice echo Michaels, especially in her section called “Listen,” with its introspections on silence, language, and music. In the poem of that title, Epp wonders: “How far can a whisper carry? / How soft must our voices be / to reach across the ocean.”

Eigenheim and Cosmophilia disentangle the intricacies of a woman’s youth and aging, of transgressing the boundaries of traditional roles and crossing geographical borders, “seeing,” Kurd writes, “no disruption in the skies / that these fences and gates / should divide the earth.” Paradox is inherent in these poems that come from the centre of home, where often one is, as Kurd describes, “a stranger to oneself.” The reader, too, will ask with Epp,

Is no one else tempted

like this? And why

is the landscape so flat

unless to lure you outward

where the road disappears.

This review “The Centre and Margins” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 143-144.

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