canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Fifth Girl
by May Chan
Pedlar Press, 2002

Hawksley Burns for Isadora
by Hawksley Workman
ECW, 2002

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Two more different books it would be hard to find, but May Chan's The Fifth Girl and Hawksley Workman's Hawksley Burns for Isadora are both beautifully fashioned. They are also both starkly personal testaments in poetry, though in sharply different ways.

The title of Chan's book refers to herself, her mother's fifth child. The collection presents a narrative of autobiographical poems about the relationship between mother and daughter. Chan came to Canada in 1963 from China. The Fifth Girl tells the story of her family in simple, direct language.

One summer,
Jack and I visit Mom
in Hong Kong from Canada after we are
married, Mom is 68.

Mom visits my 5th elder brother
in Kam-tin,
the rural part of Hong Kong.
She brings us along.

My 5th sister-in-law gives
Mom a chicken, one of the chickens
she raises in the field around
the family knitting factory.

My 5th elder brother
drives us back to the city.
We put the chicken
in the trunk, and leave the trunk
slightly open.

Midway, we stop for a rest. Too warm.
Mom opens the trunk.

The chicken is gasping for air.
She takes it out, holding both its wings.
She shakes it all over on the ground,
trying to revive it.

When we start again,
Mom takes the chicken in the car.
All the windows are
wide open.
She puts it beside her,
beside her new deep-blue
silk pantsuit.
She keeps shaking its head.

No use.
Its eyes turn white, completely.

As the above poem illustrates, Chan's writes a poetic-prose line. She writes in sentences. Line breaks and stanza breaks are somewhat arbitrary. The narrative is presented in the rhetoric of the everyday, without sentimentality. The message is, This is life as is, no frills. And yet, the cumulative impact of the poems in the collection is something more than the sum of its parts. As in a Hemingway short story (like an iceberg, Hem famously noted), nine-tenths of narrative is unspoken (i.e., under water). The Fifth Girl presents a multitude of relationships between parents, siblings, and other family members. It is a family portrait in poems. Following Milton Acorn, it shouts love.

Hawksley Burns for Isadora shouts love, too -- but the language of this collection is lush, heavily metaphorical, absurdist, and full of yearning for a reality beyond reach. This book is a collection of love letters, each about 150-200 words. They are presented one per page, with illustrations on the facing page by Beverly Hawksley, a Canadian multimedia artists.

The author is a musician: There are, therefore, at least three Hawksleys: the author/musician, the illustrator, and the Hawksley-narrator/letter writer. Which may or may not be an issue, depending on how the reader approaches the book. I've decided to approach the book this way: Hawksley Burns for Isadora is a book written by Hawksley Workman about a guy named Hawksley who yearns for a woman named Isadora. The Hawksley of the letters is a fiction, as is Isadora. The illustrations help make this a stunningly attractive book-as-object, but they add little to the poems-as-poems.

And what about the poems?

How can you be so patient with me? I'm speechless before your
beauty. I will open wide. Trust that I will open wide enough to
drink you into my guts. How can I be lost in this muck? You've
spread your love so fair and true before me. Oh the beauty of
the noises you breathe into my ears. The gurgles of newly-born
mermaids. Stories of the ancient unions of the moon and ocean.
Sweetness, you drip in the fullness of time, selflessly, while I
dissolve in careful teaspoons selfishly. Alas, I have been to these
shores before, to steal a whiff of that healing, salty breeze. I knelt
and left, hunkered away in the shadows. I never cried. "You can-
not race in this love. You cannot race where there is not beginning
and no end." Isadora, your patience is a blessing.

I have quoted the above as it appears on the page, including breaking "cannot" in the third last line. Like Chan, Workman is writing prose-poetry, but his is poetry that looks like prose, where Chan's was prose that looked like poetry. Are the line breaks in this Workman poem meaningful? Probably not. Workman's phrases are usually short, breath-sized chunks. What's interesting here isn't structural, it's Workman's narrator's use of the rhetoric of romantic obsession, which he presents without anxiety -- either of the implied reader's reaction (i.e., Isadora's reaction) or of the actual reader's reaction (i.e., your reaction and mine).

For romantic obsession is not a common mode these days, neither in pop songs nor in poems. One's thoughts turn easily to Humbert Humbert, Nabokov's nymphet obsessed narrator in Lolita. Romantic obsession is always part narcissism; it is self-love and implies ownership of the beloved. ("Lolita, light of my life, life of my loins.") In Hawksley Burns for Isadora, Isadora never replies. We do not know if she replies to these love letters. Nor does the narrator incorporate any answer to her in any of the series of letter-poems. We cannot even be sure there is any relationship between these two, whatever the narrator says or implies. His love is an obsession; obsessions are easily stoked from afar. 

Obsessions also often end badly. As the letters progress, the reader naturally asks: Where is this relationship going? The ending is ambiguous, but in the final letters the narrator introduces a third figure: "the killer."

Your beauty is uncompromising. So I say a picnic is in order. At the shore. YOU -- beauty, the killer and me. We'll await a rainy afternoon, lest the killer will have to shade his eyes. The killer will see into my belly and sign... "You need to train harder."

In the following poem, the narrator addresses Isadora: "You sleep underwater with the stones." Has he killed her? In his mind or actually? Hawksley's love for Isadora exists in language only. Hawksley Burns for Isadora is compelling reading, but its exploration of obsessive love is cliché-ridden and -- like most of the genre -- reactionary and bloody-minded. 

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.







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