Tidal Memories of Loss

  • Chad Norman and Judith S. Bauer (Illustrator)
    Squall: Poems in the Voice of Mary Shelley. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Heather Olaveson

Rumour has it that, years after Mary Shelley’s death, family members opened the famous writer’s travel desk only to discover a collection of macabre mementos: locks of hair from her deceased children, her husband Percy’s ashes wrapped in a folded sheet of his poetry, and the calcified remains of his heart after he was cremated on an Italian beach following a lethal boating accident. It is the connective image of a sealed box—the “heart of Shelley” (5)—that forms the spine of Chad Norman’s Squall, appearing at the beginning of each poem in a two-line tableau of Mary on a beach. This sealed travel desk-cum-memory box also foregrounds the significance of memory, love, and loss in Norman’s book, and leads to the figurative emotional unsealing of the speaker, the young writer of Frankenstein (1818). judith S bauer’s hauntingly stark pen-and-ink illustrations, which often contain nude female figures and sealed boxes, mirror Mary’s emotional vulnerability and provide provocative commentary.

Squall begins with poem titles dated 1822, the year of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s drowning; it then gradually moves backward ten years to the initial meeting of Percy and Mary. This reverses the usual trajectory of Canadian biographical long poems, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Gwendolyn MacEwen’s The T. E. Lawrence Poems (1982), and George Elliott Clarke’s Execution Poems (2001), a number of which move beyond the grave into the realm of mythology and legacy, revealing their subjects’ influence on the present. The fact that more than a quarter of the poems in Norman’s collection bear the date 1822 helps position Percy as sun and centre of Mary’s thoughts; although husband and wife are now separated, “a drowning now between” them (5), Mary’s emotional closeness is evident in her affirmation: “[Y]ou live bodiless in my body, / gone under forever” (6). The reversed chronology suggests the speaker’s desire to reverse this physical separation and retreat from this pain, yet she inevitably stumbles into further grief in the form of memories of her children’s deaths, her husband’s amorous affairs, and society’s condemnation of the couple’s scandalous elopement (Mary was underage, Percy was already married, and they fled to the Continent with Mary’s stepsister in tow). Retreat from pain proves futile, however, for the text ends with Mary’s admission:

I gaze at the edge of Italy,
unable to forget
we shared all
we dared to,
the effort holy,
enough. (84)

Although the “squall” of her emotional turmoil has died down into something akin to nostalgia by these final lines, like the sealed box that opens every poem, the speaker cannot forget; in fact, this box serves as a memento mori, a reminder of death and loss. If it does contain Percy’s heart, it also contains Mary’s, since all she holds dear is locked inside.

Norman shines in his ability to unlock and explore the complexity of his subject’s emotional landscape—or rather her emotional seascape, since the sea functions as both an agent of memory and a personified murderer. It is “the sea’s tease, / a damp tapping gust / eager to play the Past” (3) that, like Frankenstein, catalyzes the restarting of Percy’s heart in Mary’s imagination, marking the beginning of her remembrance and serving as a motif. For Mary, the waves are “thievish” and the sea “guilty” (5), a “[c]alm [m]urderer” (35) she imagines in a beautifully chilling sequence in which the water’s music is compared to both a “dark singer . . . that sang over his final endless squints” and a stringed instrument strummed by the hand of Loss; here, the “notes grip the neck,” a phrase ominously suggestive of both Percy’s drowning and Mary’s subsequent grief. In lines heavy with loss, waves, which seem to momentarily reanimate the dead, are exposed as “the buoyant hoax, / in league with grief’s wry lure” when they

sen[d] as a faint sinking mirage
the memory saves:
the undulant hair,
the open mouth,
the muted bubbles. (36)

While Mary’s emotional storm subsides by the end of the volume, the metaphor of “tidal memory” indicates its inescapable and continuous return (30).

In his foreword to the collection, George Elliott Clarke positions Mary as “proto-suffragette” and “precursor-feminist,” and Percy as a narcissist, liberal, and libertine (xi). The speaker is described by Norman as an inheritor of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s proto-feminist “revolt” (73); Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). However, I find that Norman is less interested in charting Mary Shelley’s radical feminism than in inhabiting her interiority and expressing the intimacy of loss. Norman excavates the “rupture[s] & cracks” (67) of the Shelleys’ relationship and, more importantly, explores the depths of his speaker, whose jealousy is directed toward her “sly” (51) stepsister Claire because of her relationship with philandering Percy, and whose “grief ha[s] . . . grown / to the size of the creature / in [her] today” (71).

The spareness of Norman’s poetry is reminiscent of snippets of memory, and the impressionistic imagery constructs a vividly emotive portrait. Like memory itself, the text offers flashes of incredible detail amid moments of ambiguity; for instance, pronouns often substitute for proper nouns, details are sometimes inserted with little context, and additional commas occasionally result in less clarity. While these aspects require a little guesswork or research on the reader’s part, they can also render the reading experience more intimate, as if the reader is slipping into Mary’s consciousness. Norman’s play with punctuation allows the syntax to reflect the fragmentation of Mary’s thoughts, while his exclusive use of the ampersand perhaps hints at the text’s preoccupation with the division brought about by death: connections have been sundered, a notion that opposes the very purpose of a coordinating conjunction. If the syntax does not read exactly like ghostwriting (as the subtitle suggests), Norman’s text compellingly imagines Mary Shelley’s emotional life while capturing the romanticism of her writing. Reading Squall inevitably invites rereading, and will intrigue and inspire the reader to learn more about its biographical subject—which will only enrich the reading experience.

This review “Tidal Memories of Loss” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 18 Jun. 2021. Web.

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