Adele Wiseman’s classic 1974 novel, Crackpot, provides inspiration for this narrative poem by Wiseman scholar and Ryerson University English professor Ruth Panofsky. Here, Panofsky attempts a poetic rendering of the life of Crackpot’s saucy protagonist, Hoda, the daughter of Jewish immigrants in Winnipeg who turns to prostitution to support her blind father, Danile.
One of the first questions we might ask when approaching Radiant Shards is why read this book at all, when you can simply pick up Wiseman’s novel? What additional insight does Panofsky bring to this memorable character from Canadian fiction? Prairie literature has a long tradition of exploring actual historical figures through verse – think Dennis Cooley’s Bloody Jack, about outlaw John Krafchenko, and countless works about Louis Riel – but Panofsky is trying something riskier: to create and sustain an entire poetry collection around a fictional character.
What makes Radiant Shards such a curio is how Panofsky chooses to interpret Hoda. While Wiseman presented her as a strong woman in love with love, Panofsky takes a different approach. In several poems, we see Hoda through the lens of victimhood, a weak and simpering girl ruminating on her lot. “What else can I do / to hide the shame / that cuts through me / but slink away,” she bemoans in a poem about her cruel schoolteacher, Miss Bolthomsup. And a few pages later: “I am small / I am scared / but no one sees / no one cares.”
There are times when Radiant Shards’ minimalism serves Panofsky’s gamble well. Note her thoughtful line breaks when describing Hoda giving a hand job to the butcher Yankl:
He gets what
he’s begged for
Daddy and I get
meat for soup
to last the week
There are other times, however, when Panofsky needs to give us more. As we know from Canadian masters of minimalist poetry – such as Nelson Ball and Souvankham Thammavongsa – if you’re going to put just a few words on a page, every word has to count. Still, Panofsky’s project is worth reading, for no better reason than to remind us that Crackpot is worth reading. Radiant Shards is an intriguing – if peculiar – addition to Wiseman’s legacy.