A.E. Stallings, Brian Bartlett, Budge Wilson, Catherine Pierce, Margo Wheaton, Mikko Harvey, Poetry, poetry month, Rebecca Thomas, Rita Joe, Sheree Fitch, spring
I’ve admired the poetry of A.E. Stallings ever since my parents gave me a copy of her book Like, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. I love the opening lines of “After a Greek Proverb,” which also appears in her new collection, This Afterlife:
We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query—
Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back.
Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.
The preoccupation with what is temporary and what lasts continues in “Glitter”:
You have a daughter now. It’s everywhere.
And often in the company of glue.
You can’t get rid of it. It’s in her hair:
A wink of pink, a glint of silver-blue.
It’s catching, like chicken pox, or lice.
(The epigraph to this poem is a quotation from British Vogue: “All that will remain after an apocalypse is glitter.”)
The ordinary challenges of modern life—trying to clean up glitter; hunting for a lost piece of Lego—appear in these poems alongside big questions about time, memory, life, and death. “You can’t go back,” we read in “Burned.” “Although you scrape the ruined toast, / You can’t go back.” Just as “The butter cannot be unchurned,” “You cannot unburn what is burned.” Even the parent reading “Another Bedtime Story” has to face the fact that
The tales that start with once and end with ever after,
All, all of the stories are about going to bed,
About coming to terms with the night, alleviating the dread
Of laying the body down, of lying under a cover.
My sister Bethie sent me a photo of her copy of This Afterlife.
Stallings’s “First Miracle,” with its focus on what the body can bear, made me think of the ending of my friend Margo Wheaton’s poem “Seeing Me Home,” in The Unlit Path Behind the House:
This is just the pain
in living, impossible to bear
and bodies, bearing it.
Stallings writes, “Her body like a pomegranate torn / Wide open, somehow bears what must be born.”
I couldn’t find my copy of The Unlit Path Behind the House (I realized later I had lent it to friends), and when I asked Bethie if she’d take a photo of her copy, she sent me this picture of the book on the path behind her house in Bonn.
For Poetry Month, I’ve also been reading poems by Rita Joe, whose book Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi’kmaw Poet I mentioned here a couple of weeks ago. In Song of Eskasoni, she speaks of
Listening to old folks telling stories
Of long ago, when the earth was young.
Their deeds woven into history
in Eskasoni, near mountains, waters and trees.
In an untitled poem, #14, from We Are the Dreamers, she says
Our home is this country
Across the windswept hills
With snow on fields.
The cold air.
Before the pandemic, I went to a launch for two picture books, one featuring Rita Joe’s poem I Lost My Talk, and the other featuring a response by Rebecca Thomas, former Poet Laureate of Halifax, entitled I’m Finding My Talk. In Joe’s poem, she speaks of how her “talk” was taken away from her “When I was a little girl / At Shubenacadie school.” Her daughter Ann Joe says Joe “used to say writing was her therapy. She had a lot of painful memories and she had to get them out. She became a writer because she wasn’t allowed to write. The more they tried to break her will, the more she went her own way.” The poem acknowledges the enormity of what was taken from her and from other students at residential schools, and ends with hope:
So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.
Thomas’s poem is similarly hopeful:
I’m finding my talk
One word at a time.
Another Nova Scotia poet I admire is Budge Wilson, author of the beloved and bestselling prequel to Anne of Green Gables entitled Before Green Gables. In that book, she accomplished something truly extraordinary: even though pretty much every reader knows it will end with young Anne Shirley arriving at Green Gables for the first time, Budge created a story full of suspense, right up until the moment when Anne leaves Nova Scotia for Prince Edward Island on the ferry. “Bewitched by the limitless expanse of sea, the galloping whitecaps, the wheeling gulls, the smell of salt and seaweed,” Anne thinks, “This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”
Over the course of her career, Budge published many stories and novels for readers young and old. Her first book, The Best/Worst Christmas Present Ever, was published when she was 56, and her first book of poetry, After Swissair, was published when she was 88.
The rocks at Peggy’s Cove are often chilly
even in the midsummer sun
In the black of that September night
and in the awful dawn
they were as cold as death
The cover of the book features a quilt by Barb Robson entitled “Sea Change,” which was inspired by Budge’s observation that a sea change had taken place in the community in the area near the spot where Swissair Flight 111 went down on September 2, 1998.
Last weekend, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I turned to poems by Mikko Harvey, an old family friend—well, he isn’t old, but our family connections go back a long time—who lives in Western Massachusetts and has published two books: Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit and Let the World Have You. Jim Nason writes in a review of the former that “Harvey’s ability to make normal situations new and strange is one of his greatest talents. Combining metaphor in equal amounts with a distraught psyche that’s allowed to freefall, he heightens and liberates language.”
Two of my favourite poems from Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit are “Swivel”—“Sometimes, I spend the whole morning searching / for the morning”—and “Intimacy”—“So introduce me / to your friends: I promise to wear my best face.”
Here’s a link to a photo essay by Mikko, of things and places that inspired him when he was writing Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit, including The Moomins, a basketball court in Columbus, Ohio, and a giant sandpit in Johannislund, Finland—“an archetypal place of play and wonder.”
In Let the World Have You, I especially like “Personhood”: “I regret / 96% of my backward glances, / but to regret is to glance backward, / and thus we proceed toward 97.” And “Secret Channel,” which begins:
When you realize you are only a subplot
in the story the day is telling, you are
devastated; it would have been better
to be everything or else nothing.
“For M,” which is included in Let the World Have You, went viral last year. Part of the poem appears on the back cover:
My husband and daughter were in Boston recently, and I’m going to include a few photos from their trip in this post, because over the years we’ve spent a lot of time with Mikko and his family in Boston and Cambridge.
I enjoyed reading this list of “30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month,” from the Academy of American Poets. I’ve signed up for “Poem-a-Day,” which is curated in April by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón. I liked the suggestion about reading and sharing poems about the environment in honor of Earth Day, and it was a lovely surprise to find that one of the poems on their list of Poems About Climate Change is by Mikko. “The Poem Grace Interrupted” begins, “There once was a planet who was both / sick and beautiful.”
I read several of the poems on the list, and one of my favourites was Catherine Pierce’s poem “High Dangerous”:
is what my sons call the flowers—
purple, white, electric blue—
pom-pomming bushes all along
the beach town streets.
I can’t correct them into
hydrangeas, or I won’t. …
The League of Canadian Poets also has a list of ideas for celebrating Poetry Month, including sharing a poem on social media using the hashtag #todayspoem. I like their promise at the end of the list that “there’s a poem just for you, and we know someone wants to help you find it.”
One of my recent discoveries was a splendid new poem by my friend and neighbour Brian Bartlett. (Thank you to Sandra for telling me about it and Brian for sharing a copy.) “Bishop’s Hues” was published in the Winter 2023 edition of Riddle Fence. The poem looks at two photos of a collage by Elizabeth Bishop, along with vivid phrases from her poems, including “white-gold skies,” “silver and silver-gilt,” “bright violet-blue.” Like the Stallings poems I quoted earlier, “Bishop’s Hues” focuses on change and loss:
The blue of the Blue Morpho
fades, sky-tinge left only
in one wing’s half, earth-brown
replacing the namesake hue.
Though the blue of the butterfly is “diminished,” Bishop’s words are alive and in constant motion: “Rereading after rereading, / her lines rise, veer, skim and tilt.”
I love seeing crocuses and snowdrops at this time of year in Nova Scotia. As a kind of tribute to the vibrant purple crocuses in my neighbourhood, here’s a quotation from a picture book I’ve loved for years. This is from Mabel Murple, by Sheree Fitch, another Nova Scotia writer, whose work for both adults and children captures the sorrows and joys of life with wisdom, humour, and a profound understanding of the power of the imagination.
what if …
EVERYTHING was purple
I mean a WHOLE PURPLE WORLD
And there was someone just like me
I mean a purple sort of girl
And if …
There was a purple girl
How purple could she be?
Would she get in purple trouble?
(She would if she were me!)
I’ve long thought that Mabel Murple and Jane Austen’s “Beautifull Cassandra” are kindred spirits, but that’s a story for another day….
These crocuses are so tiny that I almost stepped on them when I got out of the car. Thank goodness I spotted them in time.
I return often to Sheree’s collection of poetry for adults In This House Are Many Women, especially the words of “When Atmospheric Conditions Permit,” which opens with “Siren sounds” that “swirl” and “scream,” making it difficult to sing a lullaby. “There’s so much love but the world’s gone wild.” Even so:
by the light of the moon
you find a way to make
that from bits of shattered glass you’ll keep creating some
I’ll close with a link to a tour of the beautiful garden at Lake House in Norfolk, England, full of bluebells, light blue periwinkle, and other April flowers. This is from a blog I’ve followed for several years, called “The Garden Gate Is Open.”
Happy Spring, and happy Poetry Month!
Daedalus Lex said:
Wow, what a great cover on the Stallings book!
Sarah Emsley said:
I think so, too!
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Hugh Kindred said:
Hello Sarah, Thank you for this week’s blog full of poetry. I am familiar and enjoy many of the poets and poems you mention, while the other short passages by poets I have not read whet my appetite to seek out their work.
Are you familiar with Whispers of Mermaids and Wonderful Things, a collection of children’s poetry from Atlantic Canada bu Sheree Fitch and Anne Hunt? Not every poem is to like, but the collection as a whole is wonderful.
Best wishes to you and all your family as you gather for a Happy Easter. Hugh ________________________________
Sarah Emsley said:
Thanks very much, Hugh. I hope you and your family had a happy Easter weekend. I do know that beautiful book, and have given copies to some of my nieces and nephews. (Thanks also for your note and the copies of Margo’s books, which I found in my mailbox right after I had asked Bethie to take a photo of The Unlit Path!)
I love those very same lines from Margo’s poem “Seeing me Home.” I read them over several times before moving on.
So many other great poems and poets you talk about here. Sheree Fitch is a favourite and reminds me to tell you how much fun I’m having at work this month creating poetry-related activities for kids. Children’s poetry is so much fun. Sheree Fitch will be featured at my poetry storytime.
Sarah Emsley said:
How wonderful that you’re creating poetry events for kids! I love libraries. Thank you for the work you’re doing.
Those lines from Margo’s poem are so powerful! I think of them often.
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