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Book Reviews

Her Absence, This Wanderer

by Rachel Zolf

The Mennonite Madonna

by Diane Driedger

Strong in My Skin

by Jennifer Frankum

The Law of Return

by Karen Shenfeld

Much of the poetry currently issued in Canada is the product of small presses, whose efforts and commitment to publishing new poets often goes largely unnoticed in the mainstream media.

Each of these debut volumes, published by a small press, constructs a personal narrative that takes the reader on a journey through time and place. The broad sweep of history shapes the small canvas of daily life in the collections by Diane Driedger and Rachel Zolf. Driedger and Zolf write respectively as Mennonite and Jew who seek to situate their present lives in the context of a larger past. A private, less public history is the subject of Jennifer Frankum and Karen Shenfeld’s volumes. All four poets reveal a sensitive engagement with the felt world and an ability to translate perception and experience through nuanced language.

In The Mennonite Madonna, Driedger returns to a small town in Saskatchewan run by the Mennonite church. In 1908, her great-grandfather Johann Driedger was excommunicated from his church and shunned by his Mennonite community. Johann was a successful businessman who accused another man of burning down his own store as well as Johann’s for the insurance money. The church regarded the accusation of a fellow church member as unbrotherly and expelled Johann.

Driedger admits that her great-grandfather’s obsession to regain entry into his church and his community soon claimed her imagination in a sequence of poems that recreates family history.

Johann emerges as a willful, determined man despite his thwarted efforts to regain acceptance as a Mennonite. Driedger writes of the burden that Johann’s wife Katharina feels as a result of her family’s isolation: “we move every two years / I feel the terror of / new places over and over … every little place a blur / of seeming redemption.”

Driedger inherited her great-grandparents’ determination, for this quality characterizes the collection’s later poems about contemporary life. The speaker positions herself as a woman who embraces her Mennonite heritage but not its legacy of silence.

Rachel Zolf – by far the most experimental poet and one of the most successful of the four – also draws on the past. Here, however, the speaker is concerned with her dual, often conflicting identity, as a Canadian Jew and a lesbian.

Zolf incorporates a series of powerful photographs: recent shots of old gravestones in Jewish cemeteries in Poland accompany photographs of family members killed in concentration camps during the Second World War. These images – at once beautiful and haunting – complement the angry beauty and stark language of Zolf’s poetry.

At first glance, the textual play of Zolf’s Her Absence, This Wanderer appears at odds with its serious subject matter. However, the reader comes to accept the form as a release from the serious content. On a pilgrimage to Poland, the speaker and her lover visit sites where Jews once lived, worked, and celebrated. It is through the playful form that a fragile sense of release is acquired, “I pull myself back gently / catch my fugitive glazed eye / hold steady chattering hand / smooth windswirled hair / and set myself down / in the sunlight, on the floor.”

Jennifer Frankum’s lyric Strong in My Skin articulates the private landscape of family life. Unlike Driedger and Zolf, who look outward as they draw on personal history, Frankum focuses inward. Her craft is the least practised and weakest of the four poets. Nonetheless, she succeeds at the difficult task she sets herself: to render the experience of depression. Deftly, she conjures the “hag who dims my gaze,” the “black dog” that “skulks / grins, / has his way.”

Frankum begins with childhood and her silent, depressive father. “Cautious of him” as a young girl, the speaker does not understand his distance. As an adult, however, she recognizes that she and her father share a dark disposition. Her mother’s comforting presence, felt across the volume, contrasts too simply with the portrait of a troubled father. The reader yearns for the dense images and textured meaning that resonate in Frankum’s best poems.

The Law of Return by Karen Shenfeld offers up a varied palette. Although she writes about family and the inheritance of the past, Shenfeld is the most rooted in the present of the four poets. Comfortable with a variety of forms and a range of voices, Shenfeld, whose work is the most mature of this group, takes the reader on an exuberant journey across time and place with buoyant language.

Unlike Zolf who is driven to unearth the past, Shenfeld celebrates her Jewish heritage. This is not to suggest polished surfaces and little meaning. On the contrary, Shenfeld offers lyrical portraits of her father on Yom Kippur – he “bends like a willow over his book. / Whispers the N’Shane Tokef, / Closed fist beating the door of his chest” – and saying the prayer for the dead – “braid the fringes of his shawl. / He wraps it around him / Stands for the Kaddish. / Stained windows are dark, / then bright.” These images evoke centuries of beloved worship, well-worn traditions, and a daughter’s love for her father, all achieved with great economy through brilliant and clear language.