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Full review in Canadian Literature

"Family Albums, Poetic Genealogies"
Canadian Literature

Louise Bernice Halfe Blue Marrow. Richard Harrison Big Breath of a Wish. Shannon Stewart The Canadian Girl.

All three of these excellent new volumes by young Canadian poets engage with the experience of family and reveal each generation's struggle to communicate with its past and its future. Louise Bernice Halfe's Blue Marrow concludes with a statement that sums up the book's subjects: "Grandmother, the woman in me." Blue Marrow is a fragmented autobiography that contains the stories of the author's spiritual and physical Cree grandmothers. As the title indicates, this book delves not just into the bone but also into the very marrow of tradition, a process at once painful and filled with spiritual illumination. The epigraph comes from Pablo Neruda's Ceremonial Songs, a title which could subtitle this volume, for Blue Marrow feels ceremonial. The poems take on chant-like rhythms and read like laments for lost ritual that are part redeeming ritual themselves: "Oh Nohkomak, / your Bundles I carry inside, / the full moon dancing / beyond my wails. / I've seeped into / your faces, / drowned in the pictures / I have gathered / and cannot / hold." Halfe writes with an almost mystical intensity, as if through language it were possible to become one with the Nohkomak (the Cree word for Grandmothers). Yet the catalogue of questions at the end of the book indicates that the grandmothers will always remain somewhat apart, something of an enigma. Blue Marrow is a poem including history, a polyphony of the tongueless, and abounds in times, peoples, and places, so much so that it is often difficult to follow its transitions. Some may complain that this difficulty is unnecessary and distracts from Halfe's point, but complex history necessitates a complex style. Also known as Sky Dancer, Halfe has published only one other book of poetry Bear Bones and Feathers, which won the Milton Acorn Award for 1996. Her second book confirms that she is an important new voice in Canadian poetry.

Shannon Stewart's impressive debut collection The Canadian Girl also explores the places where personal and public histories intersect, one of her central concerns being the lives of Canadian girls and women within the domestic sphere. Her book divides itself into four sections. The first, "The Canadian Girl," contains a semi-autobiographical sequence that follows the poet up to the age of sixteen. The author's gentle wit and striking imagery save these poems from the twin dangers encountered when writing about growing up: banality and sentimentality. The second and liveliest section of the book, "The Loves of Aunt Sophronia," is a series of meditations inspired by a column from a homemaker's manual of 1879 called The Home Companion. Next comes "Talking to God," a series that follows the development of the author's child from conception through birth to points beyond. The final section, "The Garden of Earthly Delights; is the most eclectic: topics range from barnacles and farting in elevators to a women-only circle jerk.

The poems in The Canadian Girl are poems of our climate, poems of earthly delight and disappointment. Stewart's subject is the everyday-everyday objects (furnaces, stoves), everyday people (Mom, Dad)-and she speaks in a clear voice using the often richly sensuous diction of the everyday. Yet in her best poems, she also observes those times and places where the everyday becomes momentarily and magically transfigured. In a poem from the Aunt Sophronia sequence entitled "Hysteria," for example, the poet examines the sometimes strangely intimate relationship among people living in the same apartment building. The poem begins with a longish and fascinating entry from Aunt Sophronia on how to care for hysterics, which is followed by the poet's ironic lament for the dying art of hysteria. This subject leads her to discuss her downstairs neighbour who screams and throws objects at her husband and to whom the poet listens through the hot air vents. The poem concludes: "Tomorrow I'll wish / for the century to turn back, where / she could fall upon the grass, shaking, / and I'd be there, the resolute nurse / plying a womanly trade / of teaspoons and unguents." The poet does not really admire the culture which created hysteria, yet, perversely and paradoxically, waxes nostalgic for its objects (teaspoons, unguents) and its folksy moral certitude. In poems such as "Hysteria," Stewart reveals that she is a poet to watch out for. Her poetics are, as one of her poems puts it, kitchen poetics, refreshingly unpretentious and accessible, yet her poems are less simple than they first appear. Like The Canadian Girl, Richard Harrison's fourth volume Big Breath of a Wish also observes the minutiae of infancy. With a naturalist's precision, Harrison documents the first year in the life of his daughter, Emma, and in particular her movement from babble ("aahgooh") to meaning. An author of a book of poems on hockey, Harrison is interested in the crease, the dangerous (and controversial) space of transition. In anticipation of his daughter's arrival into sense, Harrison even makes poems by running some of Emma's beautiful nonsense through the spell-check: "awahadh hunh / yeahwa budha yeow" becomes via the computer "oh egg, a bad hunch, / yeah, a buddha eye." So is poetry born. The first poem in the collection, "Birth Day: The Video," relates Emma's birth, focusing on that terrifying moment of silence, "where they lost the sound of the heart," and introduces us to two of Harrison's fascinations: sound and memory. Throughout he uses his daughter's utterances and activities as starting points for meditations on language. His poems combine an eye for the sensuous detail, an ear for the beauties of noise, and a deft intellect. For example, "Oral Stage: Inside Out" ponders the path towards knowledge. The father observes the way the world "goes in / piece by piece where / words come out to name it." Emma, in other words, comes to know the world by putting it in her mouth. This realization prompts him to mime this action himself by placing a rattle in his own mouth, which prompts the dull ache of memory and the melancholy thought that it will be too soon before the world will again reemerge from his daughter as a calling. The poem points to the sensual nature of language but also to the fact that the poet's calling is a sad one: for language is always already the record of loss. Harrison follows this thought with a mime poem "Oral Stage: Outside In" that reverses the action of the previous poem. As these titles indicate, Harrison has been reading Freud, Lacan, and Derrida. Unlike many theorybesotted poets, Harrison makes poems that are comprehensible and human-thanks largely to Emma, who keeps him rooted to the here and now. Alongside those of Halfe and Stewart, Harrison's book shows how younger Canadian poets are using their craft to keep memory, that fickle beast, alive. Like Halfe and Stewart, Harrison begins and ends his journey at home, but he also uses his craft to take us into the treacherous terrain of memory. It is a trip worth taking.
Canadian Literature 166 1 Autumn, Kegan Doyle