canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Beauties on Mad River
by Jan Conn
Véhicule Press, 2000

Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston

Conn has arranged the poems in this collection to portray the evolution of certain recurring themes in her work. They are not in chronological order as is more usual but in five sections, each one deepening and widening the reader’s perception of the theme. ‘Namesake’, whose underlying subject is the suicide of Conn’s mother, uses desert images, with light resonating throughout the section in various forms, such as moonlight, a white silk blouse, light waves and the yellow of daffodils.

Poems from earlier collections form the backbone of this book though almost half are new and these exemplify the forward movement of Conn’s thought. She is never static, never content to remain in one place emotionally or physically. Her travels all over the world and habitation in Caracas, Gainesville, Montreal and Vancouver, enrich her poetry with snapshot-images: ‘My lover has run away with a beauty from Mojú./ Such enchanting breasts, such crow-coloured hair!/ I climb Mt. Mansfield, I bring the season’s hurricanes/ all the way up the northeast coast. …’ She uses whatever she has seen, experienced or studied to explore and delineate. Her work as a biologist adds precise detail to her work ­ ‘the tarantula, the/ sidewinder, the long-legged kangaroo rat.’

The section titled ‘Lament’ lays out the journey from new and exhilarating love to separation, loss and grief. She explores her view of masculinity through poetry that moves back and forth, from the first perception of her father as male in ‘Electra’, ‘midnight, at the icebox, rumpled/ and smelling faintly of rum, faintly/ of something else’; to thinking of her lover as a teenage boy ‘naked as a shoestring’ in ‘Exposure’; to ‘Belém without you/ is like being vertical’.

The male body, boys’ bodies predominate in this section, seen through the lens of broken and breaking relationships. Underlying these, surrounding and imbuing them with a miasma of pain, is hard imagery: an iron gate, an icebox, car-lights, chromium, icebergs, asphalt, dump trucks, chain link fences. There is nothing easy or friendly about this section of Conn’s poetry. The colours are muted, slate gray, candlelight, snowstorm, fog, glaucous air, pre-dawn light, turgid water, and desert.

Thin threads of colour are woven in: apricots, tiger lilies, and red blood cells. But the overall mood is one of distance and removal, culminating in the last poem of the section titled, appropriately, ‘Loss’. In this, a poem in which Conn again uses the spirit of the ghazal though not the actual form, quiet words are made suddenly bleak and hard by the use of terms such as ‘gritty’ and images like ‘careening jeeps’, ‘turbulent hills of waves’ ending with ‘a thin red line’ which evokes Sir William Howard Russell’s “The Russians dashed on toward that thin red line streak tipped with a line of steel,” picked up by Kipling’s “But it’s ‘thin red line of ‘eroes’ when the drums begin to roll.” The lover’s journey ends with war - and Conn wearing a black linen dress.

Conn’s poetry tends to take a hard objective viewpoint; perhaps her work as a biologist makes her see life clinically and portray it without easy emotional engagement. Her scholarship, however, is remarkable and gives a richness to her work that makes her poetry map ‘not so much the world as the soul’ as George Elliot Clarke has said.

Joanna M. Weston is the author of The Willow-Tree Girl - for ages 8-12.







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