Virgin Territory, Betsy Struthers's latest poetry collection, explores the themes of old age, love, and marriage. The first half of the book (the section called "Encountering the Crone") is dominated by the figure of the crone. This is a powerful archetype Struthers uses to present the tension between the family one is born into, and the family one chooses through marriage and parenthood. She works through this tension by looking at two aspects of the crone: one "of the flesh", the other "of the spirit".
The speaker's grandmother, the crone of the flesh, dominates this group of poems at the expense of her chosen family. The speaker belongs to a generation of daughters of controlling mothers and grandmothers: "From generation/ unto generation, the mothers/ have tried to control us, they/ forbid their daughters to marry." These undemonstrative mothers become neurotic and ill, their neediness being as great as their need to control: "Grandma calls us back to her/ small room, begs us to hold her one/ more time as we have let her hold/ on to us."
But rather than repeat the "Sins of the Mothers", these daughters "have followed the desires/ of [their] own hearts," and married. "The chain" is broken. Or is it?
"Vision" finds mothers and daughters washing dishes together, presided over by Grandmother, who talks to a husband who "has been dead such a long time." Although the daughters "call [their] own husbands," the chosen family is eclipsed. Grandmother, the crone of the flesh, holds sway.
But Grandmother is both flesh and spirit, individual and archetype. She is at once a frail old lady who "can't recall/ her address" ("Turned Turtle"), and a crone with "crooked talons" for fingers ("A Last Supper"); "one of a trio of old ladies/ who now sit side by side on a lobby sofa," and "the wise woman / we've come here to consult. Where am I? Who?" ("Encountering the Crone").
"In Translation" develops the tension between "the family I was born to" and "the one I choose," when the speaker phones her grandmother from the airport to wish her goodbye, her "son pulling on [her] other arm." She escapes the earthly Grandmother's demands only to find the spirit of the crone has followed her on vacation with her family in France. This poem, which begins the "spirit" group of crone poems, shifts the speaker's conflict to one between her fleshly family (husband and son) and the spirit of the crone.
Struthers' s symbolic method nicely sustains the tension between the chosen family and the crone "of the spirit." Ostensibly, the speaker is touring the historic sites of France with her husband and son, Grandmother staying safely at home. In poem after poem, the reader accompanies the family into cathedrals, mountain caves, along a "tarred road hedged by reeds." But beneath "the surface of things," the speaker pursues her quest for the spirit of the crone, which she encounters in underground places:
Ducking our heads
we enter darkness:
St Sarah's crypt, bones
in a glass box, robed
black idol, pilgrims
at her feet upon their knees.
("In the Sanctuary")
In "this temple underground", the speaker is torn between family and crone. She "can't leave," even though her husband pulls her arm. She is held by "women in kerchiefs, who whisper their prayers" to the crone's many names:
What matters how they address her: Matres, Artemis,
Isis, Cybele, Sarah-la-Kali, Saint of the gypsies.
Her names a chant in tongues.
"Her names invoke rituals of blood, commands of the womb/ that contracts even now as my firstborn takes my hand." This association of the crone, our "first mother", with child-bearing brings the conflicting claims of family and crone to a head, as the speaker's son "leads [her] up out of the darkness under the earth," away from the world of the crone.
The duality of flesh and spirit is reconciled when the imagery (water, the sea) associated with the crone is linked to the sexual act: "in the haven/ of our tumbled bed, salt on the tongue, sacred salt,/ salt of her primal sea" ("Acts of Worship"); "in my mouth the sudden secret brine" ("Visitation on the Beach"). The poetry's eroticism insists there is ultimately no conflict between flesh and spirit:
the only time since the womb let go of us
our hearts beat with the blood of another
pulse in perfect fit.
(For the Cathars, Struthers adds in a note, "orgasm represented the perfect fit between flesh and spirit.")
"Encountering the Crone" unfolds as a compelling, often haunting sequence of poems, in which, employing a consistent imagery and method, Struthers presents a recognizable world of relationships and conflicts. With the crone never far away (she appears as an alcoholic mother in "Coming of Age"), this world concerns Struthers throughout Virgin Territory. Two poems indebted to the Song of Solomon celebrate the joy of marriage:
Put your left hand under my head, with your right hand
embrace me. When I found you, the one I love,
I held you, I will not now let you go.
And "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,/ this my beloved and my friend" ("Acts of Communion").
Another group scrutinizes the pain of divorce:
The child knows who to blame: wicked
mother, tyrant father, her own evil
This sophisticated collection, the fourth from the past president of the League of Canadian Poets, demonstrates the sureness of style and voice that mark a mature poet. Struthers's apparently effortless rhythms, together with her mastery of the long line, move the narrative forward. Her language exhibits the rigorous word choice we expect in poetry-linguistic economy coupled with a diction close to everyday speech make these poems both accessible and a pleasure to read.
Virgin Territory explores mysterious territory, takes risks, and observes its own process as it turns "landscape into literature" ("The Daughter Element").
Alison Hancock is a columnist for Word and works for CBC's National Magazine.