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Anchoress

by Esta Spalding

In her second book, Toronto poet Esta Spalding ambitiously attempts an entire narrative in verse. Anchoress is a book-length poem that explores the relationship between two American sisters (Helen and France), their Canadian lover (Peter), and a world teetering toward disaster as the Gulf War begins.

The narrative takes place between January and August of 1992, but flashbacks to events surrounding the war in 1990 provide a pivotal centre to the book. Peter, the predominant speaker in the poem, “has no politics.” He falls in love with Helen, and weaves together stories told to him by Helen and France. But the poem is concerned with politics, ecology, science, and the laws of thermodynamics (particulary evident in Helen’s “tirade” about George Bush and the American military complex).

In a political protest, Helen brings the fires of Kuwait to Chicago. To reveal more about this event will spoil the suspense for readers. However, by linking protests in Chicago to the devastation in Iraq, Spalding demonstrates that all actions have consequences, all human life is ultimately connected. Anchoress is about love (familial, national, political) and healing – how to grieve, how to love again.

Spalding’s language is highly imagistic, with a ghostly and mesmerizing quality that draws frequently on the historical figure of the anchoress (a female hermit). Of a girl visiting the Vancouver aquarium, for example, Peter states:

She has never
loved anything so big, never felt she could be eaten
and live. What a suite
the whale is
and the girl, its anchoress.
She lies back on its ribs…
she sleeps, dreams a long
bone bed, she wakes,
is never scared of darkness again.


Indeed, Anchoress contains a “high seriousness” that offers both a criticism of life, and a sustained and serious evaluation of the meaning of human existence. While at times the narrative seems confusing, the fragments eventually fall into place. The final result is a highly crafted and compelling whole. When I finished reading, I began again, and the earlier confusions vanished. Anchoress moved me – the highest praise to be conferred on any work of literature.