canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Against Paradise
by Shawna Lemay
McClelland & Stewart, 2001

Reviewed by Joy Hewitt Mann

Against Paradise is Shawna Lemay's second poetry collection. The first, All the God-Sized Fruit (1999), won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Stephan G. Stephansson Award. There is a tendency among reviewers when a first collection has done extremely well to be harsher in their criticisms than is warranted, but then first collections themselves suffer a similar bias. This however is not a criticism of Lemay's work to date. This review is a personal opinion of this particular book - Against Paradise - alone.

One holds the book in one's hand: the senses of touch and sight take it in. At almost one hundred pages it fits in the palm easily. The cover art is pleasing in colour and design but perhaps too slick to the touch. Less gloss would have worked better but . . . let us turn the page. The mind, the ear, the eye, and even the tongue, are now ready for section I - The Slimness of Reality.

Like the first page of a novel the first poem in a collection should catch us, catch our breath if possible. 'My Venice' goes for the jugular:

I've not brought you here
to sink a stiletto into your breast
or trim off your head with a hatchet

But yes, Lemay has. She wants to catch our attention immediately and sustain that attention. The second poem, 'The Damned Rapturous Beauty of Things' (what a great title) tells us about lies:

Holy untruths
carried through air the scent
of recycled vermouth
rotten eggs.
Over water
aphid green and sepia
lime Jell-O

These are good poems, not great by any means, but the average work of an average poet. These are not the poems to start off a collection with and, unfortunately, I am developing a bad taste in my mouth. I sense that these poems have been written entirely to grab my attention. Should poems do that? Yes, if they are setting the reader into the right frame of mind for a collection that continues in this visceral style. But what follows in sections II through IV is not this style at all but a freeform of metaphor and music, of art and artistic wordplay.

Lemay redeems herself in the third poem, 'Reclining on Velvet':

When I'm gone
it would be nice to know
my bloodless, withered, impatient heart
was reclining on velvet
below a stone
set amongst the tesserae of a floor mosaic
in a city
that always laughed at poetry.

The poet, Venice, Robert Browning, and death twine together in this gratifying poem - visceral yes, but without the bloodletting.

The rest of the poems in this section though well written do nothing to raise the heart (or the hackles). They appear laboured without the easy flow of a poem that has actually been laboured upon.

II - Masquerade, which contains fourteen poems including 'Against Paradise (Poems for Alice Monet)' subdivided into five separate poems, brought a quick rise in my estimation of the collection, 'Against Paradise' especially so.

We departed timorous as bees
to a land of multifarious lions
wild with imagining. (Expulsion of Bees)

I have no answers for you, funny passionate old man.
Paint your hazy candy-coloured Venice
before it vanishes in your mind.
Paint your knots and tangles and rat's nests and be done with it.
Like always.
As ever. (O, Barbarous Moonlight)

Lemay is here at last: the poet in love with Venice and art and authors blooms.

In III - Free of the Tragedy of Words - we wander in the same realm again and Lemay is at her best. In 'Whose Name Is Fluid':

The Bellini glows, triple-glazed sunrise
trickles and slinks all the way down your esophagus.
The Tiziano - you want to dip your pinky
drink the whole thing that way.

In IV - Gluttony - Lemay writes of those who paint with words: Rilke, Byron, Shakespeare, et al. With the exception of 'Mere Echoes of Echoes', which could use more work, these are fine poems, especially 'Gluttony of Paper' and 'Dark Chocolate Sigh'. And, again, what a wonderful title the latter is. Lemay's titles are to be savoured.

The collection ends with V - Glass of Water. Like beginnings, conclusions should be powerful. This section should leave us wanting more. If this is our first introduction to Lemay's work we should be counting our spare change and making plans to buy whatever else this poet has written. So, are we?

Who made the mistake here, the poet or the publishers? I've no way of knowing. But it was a mistake to conclude what was turning into a powerful collection this way. What Lemay gives us here is love and dreams, and I feel like I've read it all before.

To love something broken is a whisper to lonely gods. (Mosaicist's Dream)

Anyone who has looked up at the heavens
map in hand
has known death and a thousand wretched goodbyes. (Cartographer's Dream)

I gave up words for breath
but then someone was calling for me
calling. (Glass-Blower's Dream)

It's all very nice. But I am reminded of a romance, not quite Harlequin, but close.

The beginning and the ending of this collection could have used more time and more revision to strengthen the sandwiching of the great poetry in the other three sections. They are weak bread indeed to the strong meat of Lemay's best writing. A collection of 67 pages (Sections II, III, and IV) would have cemented Lemay's reputation as one of our rising new young poets.

In 'The Inferior Realms' (Section III) Lemay writes:

Step on the right combination and wham
you've got stars in your mouth.

Joy Hewitt Mann is the author of Clinging to Water.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


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