Memory’s Daughter is former Edmonton poet laureate Alice Major’s eighth collection and the follow-up to her Pat Lowther Award–winning Office Tower Tales. The book’s 85 poems cover ground that will be familiar to Major’s readers: family, science, and myth, often interwoven.
The more personal, family-related poems (about a father with dementia, a late mother, and a niece with a debilitating chronic illness) will be moving for readers who have undergone similar experiences, but their emotional appeal lies more in the situations depicted than in the writing.
The book as a whole is baggy and uneven. A book this long screams for condensing; several of the sequences would perhaps have been more successful had they been compressed into single poems. A number of the poems wear their research rather prosaically, and feel more like versified fact (which is in many cases repeated in the book’s six pages of endnotes). Others suffer from strained figures, such as: “The steel chains / of naming to be reworked in different orders / across an ocean / of possibility.” The concrete-noun/of/abstract-noun formula used twice in this sentence fragment is something Pound very sensibly urged poets to purge from their writing because “it dulls the image.”
Fortunately, not all is dull here. Major is capable of writing musically and memorably and does so in several poems, perhaps most movingly in a poem aptly titled “Song”: “Never caught on loop or reel, / that sweet, high voice / on the family’s bough. / Oh, if the years could spin around / and I could hear it / now.”
It’s also nice to see a poet interested in trying out many different approaches. Besides free verse, this book features different rhyme schemes, glosas, ballads, linked sonnets (a couple of which are interesting experimental twists on the form), and a quite fine series of ghazals, closer to the original Persian form than one typically sees in English, thereby escaping the gravitational pull John Thompson exerts on the form in Canadian verse.