canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Scissor, Paper, Woman 
by Marianne Bluger 
Penumbra Press, 2000

Reviewed by Joy Hewitt Mann 

What does it mean to be a woman? How does one encapsulate a life? Here, in this extraordinary collection of 36 poems, poet Marianne Bluger reveals just that, and does just that. 

Remember the game? Scissors cut paper; rock breaks scissors. But then, paper covers rock. Metaphorically speaking, these pages cover a hard life. In the end of the game, if you lose, you must turn up your wrist for a stinging slap. 

Within this book - Bluger's seventh - the cutting to shape, the rock a woman must become, and the pain when she loses, is laid out in metaphor. Many women are cut and pasted onto the page. Bluger's insight into the plethora of womankind is notable. With a clarity that befits a seer she portrays us with all our infirmities and all our strengths; without sentiment, yet at times moving one to tears. 

In "The Letter" a teen contemplates suicide. Bluger begins, 

A cicada drills the stone
quiet of an empty street

now and then there's a car

but the creak of porch wicker
measures this hour

heavy with fate
as she rocks it is
stretching forever

so that she remembers exactly
how it felt to be a child -

XXXXXXXXXXwaitingXXXXXXXXXX a little afraid

and ends with four lines that tear at one's heart. 

and why should she fear
now she's chosen to leave them
the silence they always
demanded of her. 

One of the most powerful of the poems in this collection, "The Zen Master's Wife," makes one want to cry or shout with rage. So adeptly is the poem crafted, so succinct the phrasing, that we see the years passing, full-formed, in a mere 44 lines. 

After years hushing infants so he
could sit in silent meditation
years sweeping rage-smashed rice bowls
migrainous years
cowering among splintered heirlooms
gathering courage to leave

After years of dire threats
nightmare years flailing
stick arms at darkness
years of courtroom terror years
of shot nerves lost in Gauloise
smoke when rough coughs
masked gasps and sobs . . . 

Yet, some of these poems are purposefully not fully formed, as in "Beach With Jenny Missing." Such poems leave one with so many questions it is like an ache in the heart. 

The tide's been out and in
and out again like dresser drawers
a thousand times
but still she's gone . . .

In hopes that she might come
Harlan at the Clam & Mussel Diner
now in slow mid-afternoon
is at the window watching:

a few blurred strangers pass
and more and more
the fog rolls in
against the glass

She used to flash a fragile smile at him
but he like we who thought we knew her then
can't think what he should do
or might have done . . . 

So many of these poems ache with the questions of living - and loving - as a woman. Do we see the poet in these poems? Is this fact? I do not know. If this is literary devise only, a distortion of reality, then that fakery is more real than most memoirs I have read. There is a universality, a concept of being "woman" that rings with such clarity and intensity, it leaves one breathless. 

The only flaw, in an otherwise brilliant collection, is technical., and that is the use of footnotes - those annoying numbers next to words and phrases. They detract; they move the eye and the thought from the poem. They should be left for text book reprints. 

But that aside, this breathtaking collection is best summed up in Bluger's own words, from the poem "In Albion Daylight." 

& that wind gently raising
each hair on your arm
blowing where it listeth (I told you
it was breath) -
speaks the holy language
you hear it and laugh
& once you have read what you find
in that journal you change.

Joy Hewitt Mann is the author of Clinging to Water (Boheme Press, 2000), a short story collection.







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