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Book Reviews

Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences

by Jan Zwicky

On the heels of a double Governor General’s Award nomination in 2004 (for non-fiction and poetry), Jan Zwicky gives us her sixth collection of poems. The title might lead one to expect in this book a sequence of sonnets (the Italian “sonnetto” meaning, literally, small song), but I was disappointed to find that Zwicky’s small songs lack the dynamic tension between flux and fixity, between rhetoric and feeling, that a successful sonnet embodies and enacts in its structure.

Rather, a hushed stillness (several of the poems are still-lives of inanimate objects) is the predominant tone of these spare, meditative free-verse lyrics. Though most of the poems are competently executed, Zwicky’s direct addresses to objects such as a bath (“Bath, don’t be jealous!/The shower’s just a show-off”) and a “Round Stone” (“Teach me, stone,/to be my own weight/and anonymous”) have a precious feel to them. There are also a remarkable number of hackneyed lines (“The sea is lonely today”) scattered throughout.

Preciousness extends to layout in the final section, “Six Variations on Silence.” The writing of silence is itself a pretty poetical notion, rendered even more so by the blank page that follows each of these tiny haiku-like poems. A couple of these miniatures, however, are highlights of this collection, as Zwicky skillfully captures Heraclitean paradoxes of motion and stillness in very few words, as with “Basil springing/motionless” and settling pollen “You could watch all day/and never see it move.”

Zwicky’s best poems succeed on the strength of musical phrases, specific imagery, and dramatic tension, as in “Unsong: August,” with its counterpoint of “artillery/slam[ming] its dense fists into earth” and “holler[ing]” traffic on the one hand and the individual woman “bend[ing] among geraniums” on the other. Most of the poems in this collection, however, depend on a proliferation of abstraction (loss, happiness, stillness, silence, solitude, grief) and the relentless reuse of imprecise imagery (sky, wind, shadows, light, night, darkness). Caught between Pascal’s opposite infinities, Jan Zwicky’s songs are rarely either big or small enough to satisfy or amaze.