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Book Reviews

What We Carry

by Susan Glickman

Braille Rainbow

by Mike Barnes

After Birth

by Elizabeth Ross

As the title indicates, After Birth focuses on the complicated feelings a woman experiences both during and after childbirth, and it also comprises intergenerational concerns, such as a mother taking her children to visit her own aging parents. Ross has a facility for wonderful twists that capture the vagaries of real life with all its joys and disappointments. The first poem, “One in a Series,” describes the speaker’s feelings in extremely difficult labour. It sets the tone, and what a tone it is: “I wanted to shit the bed, / wanted the honesty of it, // not the pain chart’s smiley-to-sad face portraiture.”

Once the baby arrives, the pain and fear do not disappear. They simply shift focus into child-rearing. Ross thrusts the reader into ordinary life and its bodily functions. In “Weaning,” for example, “Snot glows in your left nostril, / you wheeze, eyes red with tears.” Or in “Lice,” the mother cleans her daughter’s head after getting a note from the school: “I’m the best / mother, picking you clean, / but can’t bring myself to squish them.”

Ross’s poems are firmly grounded in the domestic world; one of the most sonically lovely is “Shush, Potatoes.” The poet’s skill in surprising us comes at the end, when the poem is no longer just about making dinner but about how the small daughter’s language acquisition has taken a particular path: “Almost every word / she’s said has sounded / like Da Da.” Ross makes experiences come alive through her fresh and frank diction and her terrific use of imagery.

Braille Rainbow captures a completely different human experience – one that most people do not have. The first part, “Admission Suite,” includes 13 poems written, as poet Mike Barnes says, “in the days just before, and just after, I was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital, Hamilton, in November 1977, diagnosed with acute schizophrenia.” He presents the poems unrevised, and they are a powerful testament to the creative abilities of a disturbed mind.

Barnes notes that the term “hebephrenia” (radical incoherence) was placed on his chart; while the 13 poems demonstrate that, they do much more. One poem (in its entirety) reads as utterly lucid: “cast your prejudicial eye / into the sea. as it falls / mumble something bitterly / about an eyepiece that floats.” Another, “failed inventory,” is as tightly structured as they come, each line building on the previous one — “the chair chaired the meeting / the pen penned the minutes” and so on until the “I” of the poem comes undone in an anguish of confusion and observation, finally tying together “I” and “eye.”

The other sections in Braille Rainbow deal with different difficulties. Several zero in on life in a dementia ward. Barnes cared for his mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, the subject of last year’s non-fiction work, Be With: Letters to a Caregiver. But in case anyone thinks Barnes’s work is all dark (it mostly is), he does also flirt with joy. “Bumble Bounce Rag” is a nine-word poem about a bee landing on goldenrod and making the plant dance. “Heart” wonders, “Which is worse: self- / pity all say avoid, or / self-pitilessness?” That’s an excellent question and Barnes guides readers through a contemplation of both. In the book’s most beautiful poem, “Hold Hands,” Barnes uses anaphora gloriously. The listing of when and why to hold hands is amazingly positive, even if the situations are negative. 

Susan Glickman makes reference to opus 28 of Chopin’s 24 Preludes in What We Carry; as she says in the notes, she has attempted to “translate” Chopin into verse without being glued to any one format. What is utterly consistent in Glickman’s work is attention to the natural world – to flora and fauna, much of which is rapidly disappearing.

The speaker in “Ice Storm” compares her experience of walking on ice in her “old-lady shoes” and her grandfather’s use of ice in Scotch “on the rocks,” which she didn’t understand as a child. The disconnect between worlds is made clear: the child already understands “that the world I lived in / and the one I was told about / were not the same.” Like Ross and Barnes, Glickman informs about experiences, but because much of her content is about environmental degradation, the voice is quite forceful. Gentle, but forceful.

In “Db Major (Laurentian Suite),” for example, Glickman celebrates the beauty of the landscape in all its specificity, mentioning various plants and animals, then moving to an overview:  “A landscape parsed by fractal geometry / the smallest unit mimicking the largest / in unceasing progression.” Glickman takes a shot at Northrop Frye, who believed “only humanity / is conscious and that nature / is an obstacle to transcendence,” but he might have changed his mind given time. Regardless, Glickman’s assertion that it doesn’t matter settles any argument: “the trees / just listen to our high-pitched chatter / and laugh.”

The respect paid to nature in this book is palpable and the sadness at its destruction is equally strong. The technical dexterity is as powerful as the emotions and shows a poet at the peak of her creativity.