Clearing up some of the dozens of dog-eared books stashed in my office at the U of C. Many of these won’t make it on to the blog, as I bury my head in my own work for the final six weeks of my Alberta tenure.
Alice Major’s The Occupied World is deft and quick in its sketches, and that’s really what it feels like, an artists sketchbook transcribed. As with Alison Calder there is ample observation and Major glides into the nut of the poem. Here is one of my favorites, “A Woman Wary of Instinct”
You have no maternal instincts
one man lashed at her.
Where does an instinct go?
Next we get the word “Mouselings” followed on the next line by “curled in a saucer.” Here things are getting out of themselves a little. We go into dark territory, find them the next morning “cold thumbs of white wax.” My readings at the moment are concerned with the nature of representation I suppose, or how we want to make a leap of metaphor, as with the wax, but only within a kind of “naturalistic” framework.
It’s an important question I think, and one that for me, exposes a deep anxiety in the lyric world, but also in the prose world I think, and certainly for me, is a key concern of modernist fiction if not poetry. Is this a fear of “other” in one’s own imagination? Or in a political sense? Take a poem such as “What Kind of Woman Doesn’t Want A Child?” Now that’s a title that promises to get at the frayed incisions and expectations of gender, but we go instead to a soothing depiction of nature, the “churn of stones,” lovely enough, but the predictable ease of the tides doesn’t have the same leap as “thumbs of wax.” Not quite “untethered.”
Types of Canadian Women Volume II introduces a writer of invention and precision. This is a beautiful book from a young Canadian poet named K.I. Press, and another in a line of stunning books from Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia. Its the kind of book you might find hanging around a coffee table long after you thought you were through with it. Let it be said that continuing imaginatively the work of one Henry J. Morgan’s biographical dictionary, Types of Canadian Women, Volume I (originally published in 1903) is a fabulous idea for a book. I loved the project before I broke the spine.
The titles: “Devoted to all kinds of Sport,” “Author of Dairying for Profit,” “Especially for Working Girls” are fun, and I loved fact that we get a photograph on one page and a poem on the other–a kind of monologue for each woman. The poems themselves are cheeky, not narratively challenging, but fresh and accessible which I think was the goal. But they might be perhaps too accessible–I’m wondering about it as a teaching tool, for example. Does it give an account of another time? Does it work historical language? This leads to my only quibble, and that is a want of more varied narratives and personalities, of more varied diction, or form, and again what is becoming a refrain for me this year, that element of surprise. Why not a bit of outlandish vocabulary? More varied structures?? Why not make something of that Victorian (or I suppose Edwardian mixed with bush) language?
And while this might not seem a fair criticism, I would hope for a bit more agency, too. All one has to do is watch a pre-1950 movie (Stage Door, for example, or Woman of the Year…) to realize how surprisingly confident, outspoken, witty and comical women were, or go back further to Margaret Cavendish, Lady Mary Montagu, or closer to home, what Atwood did with The Journals of Susanne Moodie. Time is not an arrow. History is not a straight line.
But what a fun project, and beautifully produced. Here’s one that stood out:
A CRACK TENNIS PLAYER BEFORE HER MARRIAGE
Beneath giant parasols, courtside,
we barely spoke above our cream
and wild strawberries. I had acquired
another white costume, long,
embroidered with pearls and honey-bees;
white gloves, dancing shoes, cake.
And still he said nothing.
On his white trousers
I smeared the berries, a pink explosion
for jealous laundry girls to find.
For his wife, and for my grey, mossy husband,
just this: a little knob inside me.
For him, to be haunted
by my mouth
a pink explosion.