When Poems Are Quilts

Reviewed by Emily Wall

We come to these books with a certain reverence: all three writers have lived long, and might offer us a view into their lives. Structurally, each book of poems is similar—they offer a fragmented approach to storytelling. We see scraps of story and images, sewn together, as if the writers were quilting language as a means of looking back, and perhaps searching for a pattern.

The cover art for John Pass’ This Was the River is an appropriate introduction to the speaker and his vision of the world: Creation of the Animals by Tintoretto, 1551. Here we see a white male God, front and centre, with vaguely outlined animals all painted in darker, lesser hues. This sixteenth-century painting—like the poems it introduces—offers an anthropocentric and colonizing view of the world. In Pass’ poems, man is in the centre, and the others who populate his poems are quilted in around the edges. There is a “[g]irl in the coffee-house making / earrings,” and what we know about her is that she has “[s]oft eyes, fresh skin.” There is an entire section about animals, but Pass takes a wholly anthropocentric view: How can I use them? How do they entertain me? In the poem “I Know,” a fawn is born, but in the twelve-line poem, only four lines are about the deer giving birth. Mostly the poem is about two men standing around saying “I know.” The poem puts these men front and centre, gives them voices, and asks us to wonder at their experience of watching. While Pass offers us story scraps about those around him, they become simply background material in his pattern.

Mowing is about loss, and the attempt to make a pattern of our fear. Marlene Cookshaw explores the fragmented fabric of grief: the loss of a mother and her own aging. There are squares of delight and beauty—“the rose kimonos, high on the wall”—and those with such brokenness: “hard pads of flesh that ride my hips.” The thread in all of these poems is a deep grief at the thousand losses in our lives. Cookshaw is at her best when she’s offering us narrative snippets—the man who has to leave his home after an entire life there (“Moving House”), or her mother’s behaviour at the end of her life (“The Hospital Bed, Again”). The most challenging aspect for readers is accepting that we’re getting only snippets of stories—that there will be names, small actions, story moments that we only see fragments of—like a quilt, we’re seeing just a pocket of what was once a—dress? A man’s shirt? But if we take each as simply one square, which is part of a larger, more complete picture, then the pleasure of those snippets—both beautiful and desolate—becomes available to us.

Then we move on to: “just faces, cut from a photograph, / as if they had been standing on parade / eyes forward, no expression, blank.” “[N]o expression, blank” is perhaps how we might describe the squares in M. Travis Lane’s A Tent, a Lantern, an Empty Bowl. Despite the promise of that title, the poems don’t live up to the questions a reader asks: Who is in the tent? What was eaten? Who holds the lantern? The squares of Lane’s quilt are expertly sewn, are technically perfect. We admire the work as if it were in a gallery—lists of images; clean, square stanzas; organized sections. But when we move up close, we don’t feel invited into those squares. The writer keeps her readers at arm’s length: there are no invitations into a story, no intimacies about her fears or desires. There is so little presence of the speaker—even the tone is missing. How does this speaker feel about the “trodden rock” or the “salt encrusted scabious”? And when we do have the appearance of the “I,” which we rush to in hope, that “I” is strangely distant: “I cannot shout, waving my banner— / I wasn’t there— / but someone was.” After a long, hopeful look, we find that the squares are, after all, empty bowls.

All three writers offer us expertly sewn poems, but only Cookshaw is brave enough to invite us into the tender centres. Hers is the only quilt we might want to spend more time with as we delve into her stories, and into our own fragmented memories.


Due to an editing error, the review “When Poems Are Quilts” in Canadian Literature 240 contained an inaccurate  statement about a poem by John Pass. The review should have stated “There is a ‘[g]irl in the coffee-house making / earrings,’ and what we know about her is that she has ‘[s]oft eyes, fresh skin.’” Canadian Literature regrets the error.

This review “When Poems Are Quilts” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 20 Jul. 2020. Web.

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