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A Saving Grace: The Collected Poems of Mrs. Bentley

by Lorna Crozier

A Saving Grace, the latest book from celebrated Prairie (and now B.C.) poet Lorna Crozier, is an ambitious collection of revisitation and recidivism. As the subtitle, The Collected Poems of Mrs. Bentley, suggests, Crozier adopts Canada’s most famous anonymous diarist/novelist, Mrs. Bentley of Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House, as both a “voice” and a subject.

In fact, Ross’s novel provides the complete context for these poems; Crozier uses the narrative, characters, and tone that Mrs. Bentley’s journal entries constructs to explore the possibilities of the unnamed woman’s untold story: A Saving Grace is about reconstituting the personal pronoun, a book in which Mrs. Bentley, the poet, writes in order to name herself.

Typically, Crozier’s work is meticulous in its attention to detail and craft. Many parts of this collection are tight, inviting lyrical reinterpretations of the most provocative scenes from Mrs. Bentley’s recorded life. As poems, they often distill Ross’s prose down to its essence: “Judith,” “Bag of Oranges,” and “Paul,” for example, present pain, suffering, and betrayal in such clear, sharp linguistic focus that they transcend the boundaries of Ross’s prose and become the most unique of all poetic animals, wonderful examples of those rare lyrics that are as public as they are personal, poems that aspire to, and achieve, something close to universality.

For all the remarkable gems among its various parts, however, A Saving Grace doesn’t cohere as a book-length or “concept” collection. Obviously attempting to do for Mrs. Bentley in the ’90s what Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood did for Billy the Kid and Susanna Moodie in the ’70s, Crozier’s A Saving Grace is at times diminished by its own narrow and singular conceit. And although Mrs. Bentley compares herself to Mrs. Moodie in the poem “Wilderness,” she just doesn’t come alive like Atwood’s poetic medium or Ondaatje’s romantic antihero.

It’s a poem entitled “Mrs. Bentley” that makes it clear why Mrs. Bentley’s, and Crozier’s, search for named and nameable identity is doomed to fall short of the mark. As Crozier/Bentley writes: “And nowhere in these pages can you find my name./Gladys, Louise, Madeline?/I fancy Margaret though in the country/everyone would call her Peg./We’re left with Mrs./Bentley, dowdy, frumpy, plain.”

Ultimately, A Saving Grace struggles so hard to live up to the example and expectations of names like Mrs. Moodie and especially Margaret/Peg (and, for that matter Billy/Michael) that Mrs. Bentley’s “collected works” are, as a whole, a bit too “dowdy” – too “plain,” unfortunately, in the sense that Mrs. B never really becomes anything more complex than Sinclair Ross’s already fascinating cipher.