Like a Beast of Colours, Like a Woman

by Sophia Kaszuba,
112 pages,
ISBN: 0888783833

The Gladys Elegies

85 pages,
ISBN: 1550501127

Ode to Tio Calico and Tia Dore

49 pages,
ISBN: 1550961829

Women Who Dream Tigers

64 pages,
ISBN: 1895449766

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Between Sheets Air - Re-tuning language
by Alana Wilcox

The two strings tautened, kin

unravelling the ways they

used to be heard.

Barbara Nickel, "Sonata II in A-Major"

Tauten and unravel-this is what the words of a good poem do. The poet diverts language from its usual trajectory, and takes it on some new, unfamiliar arc that lights its subject from a fresh angle. In music there is a technique called scordatura, where the stringed instruments are tuned in some way other than the usual; for example, when the lowest string of a violin is tuned a tone lower in order to produce a unique sound. The best poems do this. By re-tuning words and how they are assembled, the poet unravels "the ways they used to be heard" and understood, and offers some fresh, unusual perspective.

This is a lot to ask of a poem, particularly of a poem in a first collection. And, as one would expect, these four books succeed to varying degrees.

Barbara Nickel's The Gladys Elegies is the most accomplished. The final section, "The Rosary Sonatas", is a stunning work, and it sets a high standard that many more successful poets have not matched. Modelled on Biber's violin sonata cycle, which itself uses scordatura, "The Rosary Sonatas" follows the rosary mysteries, but in an allusive rather than a narrative way. Although the sections of the poem thematically follow the story of Jesus, they do not adhere to its narrative. Instead, the poem takes its formal cues from the sonata. It lights on several subjects-childhood episodes, family, love, anger-all as they are understood through the sound of the violin.

Understanding music through words would seem to be a futile endeavour, so one would think that a poem modelled on a sonata sequence would inevitably diminish the music. "The Rosary Sonatas", however, offers itself as a complement to Biber's work. "Sonata X, The Crucifixion", for instance, perfectly evokes both the mood of the crucifixion and the heightened sense of anguish heard in the scordatura:

E-string loosed to D

is summer solstice caught

between thumb and index finger, string

loosed to the colour of surrender,

the kiss a paper-edge gives

after it has been torn

and in the hours that resist

nightfall, a young man lies awake,

his body open as a question.

Rather than being descriptive, this passage is evocative. Instead of visualizing a writer sitting at a desk, this poem asks us to imagine ourselves the violinist, entering the music in such a way that we interact with the notes and allow them to appear as images, flashes of memories. We are asked to hear the cello "repeating a theme under [our] violin like/ the dog that walks [us] day after day", to feel clusters of notes tugged from us "like balsam poplar seed", to hear the scordatura G as "an old wives' tale seeded/ with novelty". It is a poem not only to be read, but to be listened to and visualized.

Yet this sequence is not as prescriptive as that. First, because it does not rely on linear narrative, there is the expectation that each reader will assemble the scattered images into a unique, coherent whole, like individual notes melting into some private chord. Second, underlying the sequence is the sense of a search, the subject of which is uncertain. In "Sonata III", we see "skeletal/ hands caught in the act/ of longing"-presumably for a violin, but also for something larger and more inexplicable than that. This search, implicating both music and religion, is best articulated in "Sonata V in A Major, The 12-year-old Jesus is found again in the Temple":

Notes throng her ear as she trudges

the crowded path. Cat-cries and babble

are a grit she sifts through for E,

pitch she thinks is near

as her heart nudging

its crate. But missing insists

like the ache of a wisdom

tooth taken, her tongue

tracing the hole.

The ache is all the more tangible because the "missing" is not directed toward any singular, identifiable object. Rather than attempting to articulate the pain of a particular loss, Nickel creates an atmosphere of "missing", all the more poignant for its indeterminateness, and the way that indeterminateness contrasts with the specificity of the imagery.

The juxtaposition of an inarticulable searching and the concreteness of the visualizations of the music make "The Rosary Sonatas" a spectacular success; it is in the separation of these that Nickel's voice falters somewhat. The "Komm, Essen" section of The Gladys Elegies, for instance, narrows the search into one for family and home, and focuses instead on vignettes of family history. The writing remains excellent, but it is no surprise that the verse form shifts into prose in several sections. The narrative is compelling and well-written, but seems better suited to a prose form, where significance can be more diffuse, and explored more methodically. In section ix of "Lines", the narrator thinks of her father, "the feel of his wood/ carvings and the way he listens/ to my music, swerves the car around crazy/ and wears yellow long underwear.." This movement into nostalgia can easily become self-indulgent, and although it is still accomplished, it is less original than such a breathtaking piece as "The Rosary Sonatas".

Nostalgia is one of the less inspired tropes, and the search for voice and for self that seems to characterize these first books sometimes culminates in nostalgic reminiscences. Edith Baguinho's Ode to Tio Caliço & Tia Dores is structured entirely around such nostalgia, even including family photographs in collages. Part One, "Then", depicts the narrator's childhood visits to Great-aunt Dores and Great-uncle Caliço in Portugal and the stories she is told of their past. Part Two, "N° 10 Revisited", describes her return to the house after their death, and the third part, "And Then Now", imagines their home now. A family home as the locus for memory, history, identity is nothing new, and it is too easy to rely upon it to evoke these things, and then they become manipulations instead of emotions. For instance, Baguinho tries to present the family's tension over the new and old countries by expressing allegiance to Canada through a Portuguese-sounding mannerism: "In their garden, hey, I vowed to myself/ that my native land was Canada."

Although the narrator's voice as she tries to locate herself in the past is not entirely convincing, it strengthens as she speaks directly about her great-aunt and great-uncle. For instance, one of the most moving passages concerns the impending death of Tio Caliço, experienced by the narrator only through letters from her great-aunt:

.his heaving sighs as he was rocked to sleep

hearing the ocean wheeze and grumble

and the sun tumbled on shore, tumbled on shore

in the weltering evening

in the weltering tide

that spit out stones to dry

Perhaps there would be more meditative, rhythmic passages of this kind, where she more fully enters the experience of her family, if the book were a bit longer, or in memoir form. The book is only fifty pages long, and almost half of those are filled with illustrations, which often border on the unfortunate. Family photos are rarely of much interest to anyone outside the family, and the addition of crayon, gouache, and India ink on what looks like torn watercolour paper is both incongruous and distracting. The author, however, cannot be blamed for a design that detracts from the writing. The search for identity through family can be a fruitful one, and perhaps in a different format, Baguinho will achieve the promise hinted at in the better moments of this first book.

The blurb on the back of Vicki Summerfeldt's Women Who Dream Tigers suggests that the poems "startle the reader by uncovering the unique in the ordinary." While nearly every practising poet in the country looks for significance and poignancy in the banal, only the women are advertised this way-as though there were a certain merit peculiar to women's writing about the domestic, the ordinary. It is a shame that poets are expected to aspire to this standard. Women Who Dream Tigers has some excellent moments, but they tend not to occur when she is looking for meaning in the quotidian. Summerfeldt's contemplations of the banal often veer close to nostalgia or to cliché, and sometimes feel forced or overwrought. In "It Had Been a Dusty Day", for instance, the narrator is feeling weighted down, walking across a parking lot, when she is suddenly hurled back into idyllic memories of childhood. The poem ends:

I started to walk still carrying

the same bags and papers and books

precious now made golden magic

by the soft light of possibility

The epiphany is too methodical, too predictable. The same complaint can be made about other poems that try to coerce meaning into the everyday, such as "Birthday", "Fine Lines", and "Old Age" about aging, or "Auguries" about the narrator's daughter seeing a bird hit the window.

On the other hand, when Summerfeldt writes about situations where significance is alluded to rather than explained, the words seem to come to life. This happens most frequently, and most dramatically, when she writes about love or sex or writing or some conflation of the three. "Beginning" offers a suggestion of darkness-"the shaded blessing of dusk/ smudges the small room"-that is sexual and spiritual as well:

you are somewhere behind me

close enough to touch

but not


Summerfeldt's gift for articulating the ambiguities of sensuality is apparent in her poems about writing as well. Perhaps this is because she sees writing as an erotic act, and shows a particular care with her language that is less consistent elsewhere. In "An Intimate Moment", she explains how she has

let the sultry musk

of between sheets air

billow soft words

sighing to be

burnished by the hot force

of pen

This is the kind of scordatura that Barbara Nickel achieves. Seeing the words of a poem as "between sheets air" is a surprising, and remarkably apt, way of talking about writing. In a sense, it is still about the domestic (in that it is not the political or the criminal), but it seems to belittle the poem to speak of it in terms of finding the "unique" in the "ordinary".

In her debut collection, Like a Beast of Colours, Like a Woman, Sophia Kaszuba addresses many of the same preoccupations as the other three poets: family, love, nature, and moments of ordinariness. Just as Barbara Nickel is most accomplished and interesting when she pushes at the boundaries of language, re-tuning it to articulate music, Kaszuba is most inspired when she has to manipulate words around things that defy easy description. Colour is a particular focus, as the title suggests. The first poem in the book, which gives its title to the collection, initiates us into this world where words become visual. We are invited, like the girl in the poem, to stare at a photograph (which can, of course, be read as the book itself), and told that "if [we] concentrated/ the door in the photograph would open." The door is white, and "She imagines white,/ it and nothing else," because white is enough. After all, as she says in "Sunday", "White/ is the colour of settled things." The second stanza of "Like a Beast of Colours" breaks the white down into its component colours and opens up a new spectrum that begins to articulate emotion through colour:

The size of the heart is in the breath.

Behind it a woman is whistling

a colour out of her body,

a body that is blue or yellow

we cannot see. Green leaves surround the voice.

The tree is opening its sex to speak,

the heart deep in the voice.

Oddly enough, Kaszuba's colours become less vibrant and significant when she is discussing nature. In "Balance", "The fields lie under the coloured clouds." In "New Country", "the country was white in winter/ and the summers were green and red/ like ribbon candy." This is straightforward description. When her discussion turns to the emotional, however, colour becomes like a language of its own, with all the ambiguities and nuances of words. Kaszuba directly addresses the intersection of colour and language in "A Language (for my father)". It begins: "He holds a rosy, sometimes blue/ place on the periphery of language." To the narrator, her father evokes wet loam ("with no English equivalent") and speech like green leaves. The poem ends with a meditation on the inadequacy of any language to depict her father:

And handshakes with his own children

because words are at different speeds

worked into the muscles

so the hands know

what the voice can't

stories, if you listen.

This is remarkable poetry. It is no longer possible to work within a medium without acknowledging an awareness of the constructs, the tools of that medium, and Kaszuba, like Nickel, manages to convey a sense of introspection, of self-consciousness, without allowing it to detract from the beauty of the form and of the emotion behind it. In fact, Kaszuba's acknowledgement of the limitations of her medium and her attempts to push at the edges make her poetry all the more elegant.

For women poets especially, there is often the condescending expectation that they will find the "unique" in the domestic; this encourages smallness and banality, and deflects attention away from the originality these women have to offer. Contrary to this expectation, it is when they are most expansive, most ambitious, that these poets are most successful. It is when they discuss music, love, colour, language, where language most often fails us, that they are able to beautifully re-tune it-a poetic scordatura. 

Alana Wilcox is aToronto writer.


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