Writing the Body

Reviewed by Susie DeCoste

The two poetry collections at hand converge on a shared fascination with the roles that our bodies give to us, and the ways that our bodies can reveal things about us. The poems in Andrea MacPherson’s Ellipses are concerned with motherhood, with focused narrative sequences centring on particular women. Diane Tucker’s collection Bonsai Love is a miscellany of poems written with compassion and empathy for the human condition, especially the human feature of embodiment.

Ellipses is broken into four sections; the first two, “the other mothers,” and “routine,” contain narrative poetic sequences that explore and reflect on the lives of May and Gertrude, the author’s two grandmothers. The poem “the gaze” in the section about May is a story of May’s character as well as the author’s own retracing of family history. The poem evokes the speaker’s reflection on this important woman in her life: “She’d stepped backwards instead of forwards and then spent the rest of her life trying to retrace those steps: How did I get here, how did I get here?” These lines sum up the curious, reflective, and meandering study of the speaker’s grandmother. The following section moves more quickly through the stages of Gertrude’s life. The pair “routine, 1951” and “empty, 1977” creates a powerful juxtaposition: the first, a visceral exploration of the physical demands of mothering three small boys, and the second, a picture of a grandmother holding her son’s baby during brief and infrequent visits. The fourth section, “directions for sleep,” redirects the focus to the speaker’s life and her experience of having children as she reflects on her past growing up. Throughout the collection, MacPherson does “reclaim” motherhood, as her book’s press release suggests. Her poems make motherhood not merely worthy of “the stuff of poetry,” in the words of one of her speakers, but they also make motherhood the topic for poetry. Through the crystal clear and incisive imagery of bottles floating in soapy water, a fresh epidural scar, ominous black vans, and heavy bloodstained laundry, MacPherson takes readers into the most difficult problems of motherhood, those ever-puzzling questions of abortion, suicide, child abduction, and the death of a child. She approaches these risks of motherhood with just as much curiosity and compassion as she brings to scenes of tender new motherhood, demonstrating the rich and vast possibilities for poetic exploration of mothers and mothering.

In Tucker’s Bonsai Love, the insides of our bodies that are usually protected and hidden come to light. Readers find more than blood and organs; they find whole galaxies, painful memories, and the consciousness of Eve as Adam’s rib before she is separated from his body. In “low tide” the things left on the beach eerily become parts of the body, exposed and open to hot air as “tides change / turn and return.” In “Biology Class,” the speaker empathizes with a frog undergoing dissection; she reflects on the frog as a fellow embodied being, which leads her to consider what bodies can reveal about us without our consent. Through the speaker’s reflection, dissecting the frog represents an invasion of the most private and regrettable memories. The speaker asks, “what would we, the dissectors, divulge / from our dark body cavities if you got us pinned / to that waxen slab?” She imagines their “larynxes choked with the unsaid and the unrepeatable” as if these words are detectible in the physical body. “Biology Class” makes a good companion to the poem “Coming Down with Something” in which Tucker’s speaker believes her burning throat is a metaphor for all the “damnable afterimages / of the things I wish I’d never said.”

Neither poetry collection carries any such regret. Both poets prove their skill through these strong and sophisticated compilations. Side by side, they enrich each other through their poetic exploration of what it means to be defined and shaped by roles our bodies hold for us.

This review “Writing the Body” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 172-73.

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