canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Leylines Of My Flesh
by Vivian Hansen
Touchwood Press, 2002

Reviewed by Richard Stevenson

Following the Table of Contents and Glossary, poet Vivian Hansen gives the reader this short definition by way of an epigraph to her debut collection:

Leylines: the straight tracks of our ancestors that mark our position and direction via landmarks such as earth mounds, forest paths, clumps of trees and runestenen.

Runestenen, we are informed in the glossary, are rune stones, or the grave markers of Vikings.

The metaphor is both key to her aesthetic here, and an appropriate description of her approach to narrative: to inscribe an arc through the effluvia of letters, conversation fragments – in English and Danish -- childhood memories, retrospective reminiscence of things past and rapidly fleeing, Norse myth, newspaper story excerpts, poem epigraphs, prose journal entries, oral family history, etc. Like the grandmother Liv Pederson’s lovely weavings on Dutch plankloom reproduced on the cover and in black and white at each of the section breaks, Ms. Hansen’s serial narrative becomes a patchwork quilt of sensual remembrance and historical restoration, rich in both imagery and music, a stay or bulwark against the ravages of time.

Passages in the original Danish are usually clear from context, if they are not reprised in English, and key terms of Norse mythology – disir, runestenen, skyld, yggdrasil, etc – and Danish names for grandmother, grandfather, and other family traditions, such as handerbejde, needlework; the prayer of hands, are clearly laid out in the glossary. This is as it should be, I think, for the rich assonantal and consonantal clusters of the diction and vernacular speech rhythms of the original Danish provide lovely aural touchstones of their own, and provide a mellifluous counterpoint to the more languid ghost rhythms of iambics in the free English verse of strophe and stitch.

Indeed, it is the effortless music of the vernacular speech rhythms I find most attractive here, and Ms Hansen is as skilled at turning a prose sentence as she is at writing alternating short and long lines; the poems, like her needlepoint metaphor images stitch together well, with the gold thread of an image motif appearing in the foreground of the tapestry here, disappearing around the back of the canvas, and reappearing in the background elsewhere. Many passages demand to be read aloud and the voices of the various ancestors and their loose skeins of speech bear up the craftswoman’s handiwork. The juxtapositions aren’t blatant or workmanlike and the seams are well hidden in the knots.

Maybe those aren’t the right arcane terms to stitch together my own description of the text, but, Lord knows, I’m no needlepoint expert or seamstress! Suffice to say I didn’t find myself stumbling back and forth between the glossary and the narrative through-line; that I was able to read the book at a single sitting, yet was rewarded when I went back for a closer look at the motifs and various threads; nothing seemed hastily tied up or left tatty.

Formally, the poetry ranges from loose shambely strophes of accordion-like long and short lines running to several pages, to tighter, more imagistic pieces and mellifluous prose, the looser strophe tending to dominate. Most of the poems or poem fragments are closed rather than open in that they tend to resolve in telling images or terminal irony or some echo or other of a speech fragment or motif, carefully teased out of the back story or implying an over-arching narrative.

The story is familiar enough. Family divided by the lean war years and immigration to the new world tries via letters, needlepoint, reminiscence, family ritual, and conscious making of artifact, to beat the companion ravens of Odin, Huninn and Muninn ( Thought and Memory) to the rich midden on both sides of the Atlantic; tries to stitch together a remembrance of things past and passing before the birds eat the breadcrumbs, so to speak. My little Hansel and Gretel metaphor may seem a little precious, but the point of grounding mythos in daily ritual observances and speech locutions seems fair enough.

The narrative voice, one assumes, is the poet’s recollecting and reconnoitering her past: dead brother, irretrievable cultural baggage, etc. It’s been done before, of course, but not usually so well, and, to the best of my knowledge, not to any large degree with Danish immigrant material from a feminist perspective. Vivian Hansen, of course, is not absolutely new on the Canadian literature scene, having acquitted herself well in both creative non-fiction and fiction genres and in a previous chapbook of poetry. Nonetheless, this work is a most welcome debut in the long poem tradition beginning with Anne Marriott and Dorothy Livesay and extending to the more recent work of Marilyn Bowering and Lynn Crosbie. It is accessible and richly textured throughout.

Richard Stevenson lives and teaches in Lethbridge, AB. He has published fourteen full-length collections and a CD of original jazz and poetry with poetry/jazz troupe Naked Ear. His forthcoming titles include two collections of haiku, senryu and tanka – A Charm of Finches (Ekastasis Editions, 2004) and A Tidings of Magpies (Spotted Cow Press), as well as a satiric work, Parrot With Tourette’s (Black Moss Press, Palm Poets Series, 2004) and two chapbooks with Cublicle Press: Fuzzy Dice and Frank’s Aquarium.






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