canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Refrigerator Memory
by Shannon Bramer
Coach House Books, 2005

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

Bramer creates an atmosphere of joy edged with sadness that reveals the continual paradox of life. Her language is clear, uncluttered, and her images just off-beat enough to be plausible, just wild enough to be interesting.

The people she depicts range from ‘The Fire-eater and His Daughter’, ‘Love the Clown’, an ordinary woman in ‘Four Minutes’, to ‘Noni, Who Needed to Cry’ and ends by being unable to stop crying. Each person is clear-cut, unambiguous in clarity, as in ‘Love the Clown’

… who never left the house
without his burnt red wig.

They accused him
of being greedy and perverse.

Still, it was wrong of the adults
to hurry him, wigless, out of town.
The way we children took to stoning
his car with hard candy. (p.16) 

In contrast, Jason Brown, looked at thirteen different ways, is a surreal character, being ‘the pomegranate/ on Thursday … the artichoke on Sunday’ (p.43). He twists and turns under Bramer’s focus, revealing now one side, now another, being as multi-faceted as a human can be. Bramer has no fear of the sharp image that serves to half-conceal the truth of a person, as

lower-case jay
lives on the rim
of kate’s teacup

where her mouth
every morning (p.44) 

Jason Brown loves without declaration, peers over the edge, and is seen without seeing.

In ‘Four minutes’ Bramer captures a moment that can happen to anyone, of being unnoticed in a restaurant, bar, café, the solitude and sense of embarrassment at being invisible to others. The ordinary woman, described in detail, takes a taxi, and sits in … a small bar, an ordinary bar, a pale pearl strung among a series of bright ones, it is the door that seems less open, the one with snow drifting up toward it, that she chooses to force open. …(p.32) 

The ordinary woman, waits, and is noticed by one other person as she waits to be seen and served, ‘…Her waiting lasted four minutes, though she felt it like it were forty-four. The waiter saw her only when she rose to leave. …’ (p.33)

She writes of love and of food. The title poem, ‘The refrigerator memory’, a lament for a dead love, tells of foods mutually appreciated, foods shared and enjoyed together, foods leftover in the fridge and the refusal to throw them away. It surprises with the sheer normality of the reaction to death and how everyday things bring back memories most easily, and most painfully.

Bramer is fully engaged with everyday life, as with ‘Small words inside sleep’ where she writes of her young son and the small emphatic words he uses when talking in his sleep: ‘His small voice in the night sounds a hundred years old.’ (p.19) She conveys the bemusement and wonder of a young mother.

But in ‘God in winter’, a short poem that encompasses a profound theological statement, she involves the normal in the spiritual world: Instead of church Sarah
goes to tanning salons.

Feeds on light. Stuffs herself
senseless says the Hairstylist. (p.17) 

Light is God and the Hairstylist and, by implication, Sarah fills herself with God.

Other poems record loss and emptiness with a depth of vision that reaches deeply into human existence. Such is ‘The photographer’, who holds the camera ‘testing the empty/ weight of its images, tiny doors of return, her/ cold pictures of city, moon, desert.’ (p.21) Bramer seems afraid to go into this cold place, knowing there is no comfort there, and that return is difficult, as she shows in ‘Our prosthesis’ (p.15) or in ‘House for sale by owner’ where she touches the broken relics of her house and recognizes that

I have ghosts rattling in the knife
drawer, uneven ghosts I most regret.

I leave them, damn devils.
They are musical.

They have no place to go. (p.67) 

She must walk away from the memories, move on, to the whimsy of a brussel sprout ‘… my/ Baby like the bitter/ centre of the world.’ (p.70)

Bramer leaves with a wink and a smile, but it is a clown’s wink and a clown’s smile, with sadness implicit.

Joanna M. Weston -- THE WILLOW-TREE GIRL for ages 7-11







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