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by Tim Bowling

There are poets writing in this country who deserve to be better known. On the evidence of her latest collection, Jane Southwell Munro is one of them.
Grief Notes & Animal Dreams is her third book, and first in nine years; Daughters appeared in 1982 and The Trees Just Moved into a Season of Other Shapes in 1986, both under the name Jane Munro. This book has clearly reaped the benefits of a long gestation. At turns, it is weighted with an almost unspeakable sorrow and lifted by an affirmation all the more convincing and beautiful for what it has risen out of. These powerful yet restrained poems have the feel of absolute necessity about them. Right from her choice of an opening epigraph ("'Tis not the swaying frame we miss/It is the steadfast Heart"-Emily Dickinson) to her final mature and moving exploration of grief (one of several unflinching poems on this difficult subject), Southwell Munro shows an intelligence and sensitivity finely wedded to the demands of her craft. We can only hope more poets will recognize the virtues in publishing out of artistic compulsion, not habit or careerism.
Southwell Munro is concerned with human emotion, with how we approach and come to terms with those sometimes dramatic, but more often quotidian events that shape our inner lives. More specifically, she focuses on our most intimate relationships, seeing them through the anything-but-rose-coloured prism of grief: How can we overcome loss? What can we hold onto for permanence when our very being is ephemeral? These questions, when they are not confronted directly (as in "Li-The Clinging, Fire", "The Fine Minutiae of Moments", "In the Time of the Dying of Mothers", and the title poem), operate as a ghostly whisper behind every line in the collection. The effect is subtle but compelling; reading these poems, it is as though we have fallen asleep in a rowboat and been guided to wherever the tide dictates.
This ghostliness, the feel of forces extending beyond the bounds of the poem, appears in Southwell Munro's earlier collections, and can be seen as the particular magic of her art. She is intent on peopling the silences of her own history, on giving voice to the submerged stories of women. As she puts it succinctly in "Animus", a short poem from Daughters, "When the time comes to raise the dead/there is no plan/It happens." In this, she has been engaged on an important quest, one that the Irish writer, Eavan Boland, identifies in her recent autobiography, Object Lessons, as fundamental to the woman poet:
"It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain to men who are poets, writing as they are with centuries of expression behind them, how emblematic are the unexpressed lives of other women to the woman poet, how intimately they are her own. And how, in many ways, that silence is as much part of her tradition as the troubadours are of theirs.. I believe that if a woman poet survives, if she sets out on that distance and arrives at the other end, then she has an obligation to tell as much as she knows of the ghosts within her, for they make up, in essence, her story as well."
Southwell Munro has always sought out these inner ghosts to tell her story. She devotes much of Daughters to exploring the rich interior life of "Poppi", a character based on a Greek woman she had met in Turkey. Married to an Englishman who does not respect her imaginative gifts (in one poem, he says, "Cooking is your gift/Stick to that, Poppi, and you can't go wrong"), Poppi acts as an alter ego for the poet, freeing her to address a variety of emotional issues in her own life. The resulting poems are not entirely successful, in part because the reader cannot easily gauge just whose emotions are being explored, and in part because the form of the expression is not always equal to the passion behind it. Nevertheless, the poet's imagistic talent and fine sensibility are clearly evident. Lines such as "It is a morning to hold breath/as bent grass/holds dew" and "Denise's hand, an eyelid/lined with crimson" introduce us to a poetic vision that is as intensely focused as it is delicately expressed.
In a sense, each of Southwell Munro's books clear the way for more exacting and crafted work. The Trees Just Moved into a Season of Other Shapes, for example, signals little shift in subject-matter or tone, but its investigations of intimate relationships become more directly personal, and the language acquires a new, more flowing rhythm. The poet seems to have found a greater confidence in her powers; the use of a persona through which to filter her vision is no longer necessary, and, as a result, the poems speak with the clarity and directness that has since characterized her writing. Stylistically more daring (the poems are generally longer, and the line-lengths and rhythms more varied), and far-ranging in setting (from the B.C. coast to India), this second collection is essentially a generous invitation into the full emotional landscape of a mature woman's life (the poet was forty-three when the book appeared). Separated from her husband of many years (with whom she had three children), and facing all the emotional repercussions of such a change, all the self-recriminations, but also the liberating sense of newness and growth, Southwell Munro addresses with her customary insight and delicacy the difficulties inherent in altering our perceptions of the self, in overcoming what we've left behind in order to appreciate what the present and future hold, or, to use the poet's own image, in adjusting with the trees when they move into a season of other shapes. Whether she's sunbathing in the nude on a rock and contemplating the physical and emotional aspects of romantic love ("Spring Tide"), or following a creek bed while assessing her relationship with her mother ("Creek Bed"), she remains painfully, but not depressingly, aware of how each change is accompanied by a sense of loss, asking of herself, "Can she wade through loss that crunches/like little bones/swishes like ironed cloths/shaken to display a grandmother's lace?"
The question is beautifully put, and built within its metaphor is the unnerving ghostliness that defines her best work, that sense of a woman's silent tradition operating within the poems to render them highly effective, if quiet, acts of reclamation. Her feminism, so clearly grounded in hard-won personal experience, is all the more powerful because it works through affirmation; she is primarily interested in locating and celebrating the complex inner lives of women, in fleshing out the ghosts. As she writes in "Creek Bed", "I'm here to listen/for a long time, if necessary/to the testimony/of these mothers."
But patience is no easy virtue, framed as it is by time, which has its own agenda independent of our needs. For Southwell Munro, this inescapable truth becomes the terrifying reality of her latest collection. Just as the exploration of Poppi's emotional life in Daughters sets up the more personal treatment of the same theme in The Trees Just Moved into a Season of Other Shapes, so the latter's direct analysis of loss within our most intimate relationships prepares the way (though not entirely) for the painful meditations on grief that form the basis of her new book.
The opening two stanzas of Grief Notes & Animal Dreams are among the most powerful in recent Canadian poetry:

The fire the packrat started
destroyed the house my father built
and killed my mother.
Its aftermath sits in me like a drought.
And I, a forest creature, grown
among mists, between creek beds,
where, if water evaporates
it's only for a few hours
of rest in another state
as if to catch a little sleep,
before falling again-
I keep expecting the drought to end.

The tragedy of her mother's death in a house fire (she actually ran back into the flames, was severely burned, and died weeks later in hospital) intensifies all of the poet's previous themes and images in a way we could not have anticipated. When she writes about this awful event, Southwell Munro's language is stark and her pain obvious, but the artistry never suffers; in fact, her images become even more specific, and her voice gains in control just as it seems to be on the point of breaking down altogether. The stanzas I have quoted show this technical cohesion. Note the subtle off-rhymes of "built" and "drought" in the first, and how the broken rhythms of the second are brought to an abrupt yet musical end by the plainness of the final line. This poetry is governed neither by content nor craft, but by both in tandem. And the artistic restraint is all the more impressive for the painfulness of the subject.
Repeatedly, just as in those stanzas, Southwell Munro plays against one another the elemental forces of fire and water, constructing an intricate and complex world where beauty and pain seem to rise from the same source. In a moving elegy for her mother, "The Fine Minutiae of Moments", a bouquet of pink tulips on a kitchen counter leads back into the inescapable memory of disaster:
Our recent pink tulips
lasted a week. This morning their flaps hang
one already on the counter.

Pink. Pink. Pink.
Your charred skin. The black month
you wrestled death.

The truth implicit in these images-that grief reconfigures the world to such an extent that we can find loss and suffering even in the accepted symbols of beauty-is unflinching. Generally, the poet's central concern is how we can stare down and overcome such truth.
But Southwell Munro, to her credit, does not regard the challenge as hopeless, nor do her poems exhibit any sense that we are burdened by unanswerable questions. While her tone is often elegiac, her vision remains unapologetically affirmative. In fact, her willingness to move forward is signalled immediately, for she follows the opening poem about her mother's death with three love poems, the first of which, "Wanting", uses water imagery as a means to express her need to recover from the past: "I didn't want to want so much/-only, to swim into perfection freely."
The unity of the collection is as impressive as the individual poems. The tone, themes, and imagery of the whole are carefully and continually interwoven in the parts. In "Even with All Our Windows", a childhood memory poem about "playing bride on the sidewalk", the poet-as-little-girl is forced out of the game by older girls. She drops the white curtain from her body and escapes through the neighbourhood. While running past houses and avoiding the notice of her mother, she concludes,
Twenty houses, twenty wives on the block.
I can see each mother, thick or thin,
set in her gesture of wanting.
My mind clicks across them
like a stick hitting a line of pickets.

Nearly fifty pages later, in "In the Time of the Dying of Mothers", the beautiful prose-poem elegy that ends the book, the poet returns to the world of the early poem, to her youth, her mother, and the significance of that "gesture of wanting" with regards to memory and belonging:
Through my enchantment of grief, mother's sharp
two fingers under her tongue-come home now,
come home.

There is no place like home. Come home, spirit,
knocking on
doors, out on the streets in your slip.

Such a mature resolution, reached through a series of intelligent and moving poems, testifies powerfully to the fullness of the poet's vision. The life of a woman in middle age, as mother, daughter, lover, and friend, has rarely been so painstakingly and lovingly delineated. Even short poems such as "Terminal" and "23, 20, 19" carry the emotional impact of the longer pieces, among the best of which are the previously mentioned elegies, "Animal Lives", "Candy", "Maxie's Wake", and "Wood Box". But to single poems out of such a unified work feels inappropriate; Southwell Munro's ghostly poetic universe should be encountered as a totality. Only then can her sensitive, plaintive, and fundamentally hopeful voice be most fully appreciated.
Grief Notes & Animal Dreams is the supreme achievement to date of a fine poetic talent. I have not done justice here to the many wonderful qualities of Southwell Munro's writing, not the least of which is her natural and graceful incorporation of West Coast imagery into her poems. Born in the Fraser Valley, and a resident of the West Coast for many years, she recognizes and captures the metaphorical import of her surroundings as well as any B.C. writer has done in recent memory. The ocean, the mountains, great blue herons, arbutus trees, salal: Southwell Munro, like all good poets, understands how universality of expression rises most powerfully out of local particulars.
For this reason and many others, Grief Notes & Animal Dreams deserves considerable popular and critical recognition.

Tim Bowling's first poetry collection, Low Water Slack (Nightwood), is now in its second printing.


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