canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Susan Gillis
Signature Editions, 2002

Intimate Distances
by Fiona Tinwei Lam
Nightwood Editions, 2002

The Body of My Garden
by Rishma Dunlop
The Mansfield Press, 2002

Reviewed by Joy Hewitt Mann

In this her second, poetry collection, Susan Gillis presents a cornucopia of work. Gillis is an eclectic poet that draws from personal experience and common day happenings. This approach is seen in the poems "Cat Speaks, Midnight":

Old bowl, you are hard to wash.
Yesterday’s porridge encrusts your dark glaze.
Stars prick my tongue, and my paw does not reach
deeper then the Milky Way.

and in her more introspective work "The Sufficiency of Love":

Living now monkish, now high, now in torment –
In the steep ravines of Agia Galini, on the low fluvial plain,
Winding coastward down the hills of Argolis under the stars,
Even there I was bound; even free. Wherever, however, I go,

The one constant is my love for you, which is refused. Therefore I say
       life teaches me not
To love you not, but through you, to love.

Though eclectic in nature, the collection is unified through the exploration of the central theme of love. In her words, Gillis has “radical translations or permutations” of - other poets’ works. However, despite the brilliance shown in many of the poems found in this collection, the final poem "Gossiping with Cassiopeia" seemed out of step with the over all feel and approach to the collection.

On the whole, Gillis manages a collection of fine poems. However, the poet does make a rather significant error in architecture in several poems where the tension is lost in the concluding lines, leaving the reader with an anti-climactic feeling.

An ambitious collection of 55 poems, Tinwei Lam’s does not seem to get under her words until the sixth poem "Son." Because of this slow start, the front-half of the collection has a pace problem. If the reader continues past the introductory set of poems, they are eventually taken on a journey through girlhood, womanhood, and finally motherhood. Although Tinwei Lam explores a number of ideas related to life’s journey, the poet seems to have been overly ambitious in casting her net over such a broad and challenging set of themes. Though overall this is a very good debut collection, there is ultimately too much silence. Time and again, the reader finds themselves drawn achingly back into those poems that glinted on the surface like the edge of razor sharp metal:

In bed, it huddles
its needs against you as it sucks
life’s juice from you,
a tiny long-lashed vampire
you can’t throw off a cliff
because every cry
tears a scab
off your heart.

Overall, the poet does not seem to say enough and this collection fails to add anything significantly new or innovative, and leaves the reader with a rather vague feeling. It is as if the poet has unconsciously censored herself. Having said that, Tinwie Lam’s work shows an energy just under the surface, if the poet is able to unearth this energy and tap into it she shows considerable promise. Brief glimpses in poems such as "Consideration" wet the reader’s appetite for the great possibilities in this poet’s writing.

But the man will try to hide
his own childhood from himself
until it presses against his life
like a boy’s unuttered scream;
the woman will brood
over a harvest of silences
and reap escape.

Rishma Dunlop’s first volume of poetry fulfills the promise she showed in her chapbook Boundary Bay, and supplies the best voice in this trio. She has gathered fifty-two poems under six titles that provide directions for reading the book, that is, as if it were separate chapbooks about a woman’s love, and a mother’s love. But this does not detract from the book as a collection; rather it shows the versatility and craft of this writer. It was difficult to find a favourite poem, for much of this work sparkles. Wherever one turns, words fly out and blind the reader.

I have opened up the Atlas with my bones
found my own wild acres (Geography)

I am signed by you
your name stroked
upon my forehead (Autograph)

I will always know your absence
as an alphabet; it spells my name. (Variations of Blue: ii)

Dunlop combines the academic precision she has learned as a professor of literary studies with the casualness of a poet in love with the written word. Dunlop is not afraid to open up her heart. For all who love or have ever loved, this collection is a must.

Joy Hewitt Mann is currently working on her third book, Los Pentitentes, with the help of the Canada Council for the Arts. She runs a bookstore/junkstore in Spencerville, Ontario.







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We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.