U.K.-born, Yukon-based poet Joanna Lilley’s debut collection uses a wintry landscape as the backdrop for heated questions about love and life on Earth. More accurately, Lilley’s collection details our fraught relationships with Mother Nature – the changing seasons, our ability to “weather the storm” – and how such relationships mimic the ones we practise indoors.
Winter weaves itself into the form and content of several poems in phrases that land on the reader’s consciousness like snow: lightly at first, then heavily in their accumulation. Several poems situate the reader in the midst of the protagonist’s own personal winter, a counterpoint to the book’s sketches of life in the Great White North. As Lilley writes in “The Middle of Nowhere”: “My family won’t visit this / faraway place of half-year / winters, centuries of quiet, / where aspen shadows dress / the snow in long blue ribbons.”
Lilley’s collection plays, albeit self-reflexively, with the anxiety of incompletion, of what may never come to pass. In “Unfinished,” she describes “the sky-blue sweater / [her] mother tried to knit. / Up to the waist by [her] fourteenth birthday, / still armless by Christmas.” The speaker knows the sweater will remain unfinished at the time of her mother’s death: “Once the will was read / and the sweater wasn’t in it, / I knew it was my inheritance.”
Weaving together the book’s four sections are poems that recount familial matters, including real and imagined scenes of childhood. Lilley’s family portraits are painted with solemnity, a coldness warmed only by the fleece of the poet’s compassionate eye.
At times chilling in its honesty, The Fleece Era nevertheless embraces the complexities of human life with warmth and passion. The poems’ Arctic air is never clichéd, and questions of geographical significance and the Earth’s fragility (“all our freight upon this Earth”) are posed with a ripe mix of melancholy and intrigue. As the poet succinctly writes in “Earth Twin”: “we’re a universe in a multiverse.” The Fleece Era forms a fine corner of this multiverse, and demands multiple reads through the seasons.