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Book Reviews

Simone Weil: Songs of Love and Hunger

by Sarah Klassen

The spirit of the philosopher, mystic, pacifist, Jew-turned-Catholic Simone Weil is evoked explicitly in the title of this book of poetry: love and hunger are implicit themes throughout Sarah Klassen’s moving and brilliantly realized lyrical work.

The Winnipeg-based poet avoids the pitfalls of sensationalizing Weil’s brief life. Weil, born in France in 1909, believed that suffering ultimately provided salvation. Her death at age 34 was recorded as suicide by starvation. Although Weil’s world is conveyed as raw with emotion, with more sadness than joy in it, Klassen manages to capture moments of beauty and yearning for light. “I give you all the galaxies, each constellation except Orion. He is mine,” writes Klassen in a poem about Weil’s search for solace in nature.

Klassen’s unflinching exploration of the oppression and suffering Weil encountered is keenly felt. The evils of poverty, hunger, toil, drudgery, and Hitler are described with a deep intensity alluding to Weil’s experience of these things. “The greatest heaviness came when they told me in Shanghai striking workers were being shot / This gunfire triggered shocks of anguish in my brain and the fallen bodies weighed on me as I worked.”

The author is in tune with her muse from the first poem, “Beginning,” to the last one “Dirge.” All the poems are profoundly affective. By subtly integrating images from the Bible, mythology, literature in general, and King Lear in particular, Klassen creates a poignant portrait of a mystic who was too sensitive for this world.