canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Watch
by Catherine Graham
Abbey Press, Northern Ireland, 1998

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook

While the title poem refers to a wristwatch, Catherine Graham’s The Watch is the record of a vigil. (With its clutch of consonants and range of associations, the Old English/Germanic noun "watch” is a much more visceral term than the Latinate “vigil”; proof of Graham’s poetic ear.) 

The collection is a sequence of (mostly) elegiac poems on the deaths of both mother and father. If quiet in tone, the poems are certainly not quiet in spirit: the language is intimate, direct and colloquial. Lyrical and narrative, the poems employ metaphor and rhythm subtly and evocatively, giving the apparently prosaic a transcendent emotional relevance, allowing grief a from in discrete images and well-turned lines. Watch, and hear, the opening poem,

Worry Dolls

A souvenir from Guatemala,
An aunt's gift for a little girl.
Six wiry dolls in spicy clothes,
Tucked inside a bamboo box.

'Take one out for every worry,
Let them worry while you sleep.'
In her dreams the dolls grow angry -
We have worries for you to keep.

That's a nice, nasty little verse because of the precise imagery and the metrical sleight of hand - the tiger of rhyme carefully reined-in, then allowed to leap and nab the reader. We see the dolls scowl, and tremble at their song.

While the nursery rhyme rhythm and girlhood images are important perspectives in the sequence, the vision is much darker than these spooky worry-dolls suggest. Some of the poems sear. Try this oracular vision:


He awoke to an incandescence,
A lullaby of light.
So my father tells me
The next morning
Of her visit.
But from where did the light emerge?
From her cataract eyes,
Disfigured chest,
Or from her orange fingertips?

Again, the virtue here is in the precision and the ironic shifts of imagery and language; and the delicate patterns of sound. A little awed, perhaps, at the enchanting waking vision of the father with it’s charming alliteration, we are disillusioned by the poet’s questions, not allowed to escape the discomforting facts; left haunted. Most of the poems in The Watch are free verse and similarly economical. There is a surprisingly masterful sestina, “The Sweater”, which deserves to be quoted in full. A form of extreme artificiality, the sestina often fails because the poet is unable to find a narrative in which the six key words can be repeated so often without a sense of arbitrariness; or those six words are overweighted, symbolically, to begin with; or syntactic patterns (end-stopped or enjambed lines) themselves are too contrived. Graham has avoided all these traps; more, she tells an appallingly moving story through such a difficult form.

The Sweater

Around-the-clock care is required for a mother
Who wishes to spend her sickness at home.
The stores are beginning their countdown to Christmas -
She watches the ads while lying in bed,
Wondering what to buy for her only daughter,
Not wanting to admit it could be her last gift.

Her nurse drives her to Buffalo to shop for gifts.
Wrapped up in pillows and blankets from home,
The struggle is worth it for the mother.
The extra morphine eases her pain while she’s out of bed,
And she’s relieved to be focusing on this Christmas.
But her thoughts still wander to ones spent with her daughter,

And the long ago ones when she was a young daughter...
She knows her husband worries when she’s not at home.
The next morning he tells her to stop all Christmas
Shopping. He doesn’t want her to fuss over gifts
Just because she’s the mother.
It’s too snowy and cold. She should stay in bed.

When he leaves for work, she sits up in bed.
She feels like a teenager disobeying her mother
And father as she unfolds her Christmas
List (worn and crumpled). She sees most gifts
Are checked-off, but not the one for her daughter.
She intends to find it before he gets home.

She convinces her nurse they’ll be back home
In plenty of time. As it’s close to Christmas
The nurse agrees and helps her out of bed.
She selects her perfect gift:
A hand-knit sweater for her teenage daughter.
(If only she could knit like her own mother.)

Except for one vital hitch, the mother
Almost gets away with it. She’s in bed
Safe and sound, before her husband or daughter
Walk through the door. Content with her gift,
She doesn’t know that while away from home
She caught pneumonia. That very Christmas

Day the mother dies (in a Fort Erie hospital bed,
Not at home like she wanted). At the funeral her last gift
Is worn by her daughter, three days after Christmas.

There is a haunting effect here which I can only describe in a contradictory way: the poem works because, on the one hand, the narrative is so engaging emotionally that the repetition of the six words at the line endings isn’t distracting; on the other hand, those words have an almost mantra-like effect. “The Sweater” epitomizes Graham’s elegiac art: not transcending grief, but not allowing grief to render the sufferer silent; memorializing the tragic fact of life; assenting even to that.

The Danforth Review would like to encourage Catherine Graham in her art, and hopes a book of poetry will soon follow this chapbook.

Geoffrey Cook is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.







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