canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Interference with the Hydrangea
by Mari-Lou Rowley
Thistledown Press, 2003

Viral Suite
by Mari-Lou Rowley
Anvil Press, 2004

Reviewed by rob mclennan

It seems a number of poets these days are holding on to more than one book for years before releasing them into the world. Edmonton poet Douglas Barbour did for over a decade, before Fragmenting Body, Etc. (NeWest Press, 2000) and Breath Takes (Wolsak & Wynn, 2001) appeared. Toronto writer and editor Michael Holmes, as well, had eight years since his last trade collections, with the recent release of his wrestling poems, Parts Unknown (Insomniac Press, 2004) (I haven’t heard anything of his 2nd manuscript, which I know also exists). 

And now, Vancouver writer Mari-Lou Rowley, with the two poetry manuscripts she carried around for years, has finally released Interference with the Hydrangea (Thistledown Press, 2003) and Viral Suite (Anvil Press, 2004) but a season apart. With the over twenty years since her last trade collection, a Knife a Rope a Book from Underwhich Editions in 1990 (two self-published chapbooks appeared quietly in the late 1990s), the publication of two new trade collections nearly simultaneously is quite an event.

The first, Interference with the Hydrangea, is broken into structural sections as much as they are thematic, working under four heading titles: Confessions, Rel(ev)ations, Errant Reveries and CatoptRomancer.

In the ten poem series “Confessions,” Rowley weaves in lines from St. Augustine, from his own Confessions. Like a scientist, exploring not only the nature of confession, but of the poem, something that comes up again and again in her writing, of “data transmuted into the moment / of a poem” (p 13, 4th Confession), or the opening of the poem “5th Confession” that reads (with her italics being the line from St. Augustine):

A dream of stealing
motorcycles for the love of
speed and quick escapes.
What is that theft delighted me?

Forbidden fruit
sweet on the tongue?

p 14

To me, the finest moment in the sequence comes from the first stanza of the poem “3rd Confession,” that reads:

rapture trapped and ruptured
in public, an event almost
XXXthis disentrailing,
snared remnants of skin
atrial shudder
XXXthe heart’s fissure.

p 12

Rowley’s are poems that move from a small opening at the beginning to a small closing, wandering and picking up bits as they go, in a mostly straight line, such as the poems “Bird Watching” or “Only Some Bees,” or from these two fragments, taken from the sections “Rel(ev)ations” and “Errant Reveries,” writing:

Gutenberg’s press was ready for wine
until he discovered words, like grapes
could be pressed.

p 24, Surgery in C Minor


And Canada has played major
in probing the red planet. Possibly the
first man on Mars a Canadian. Why not?
We have a sense of humour, wear
practical shoes. Are concerned about orphans
and widows and don’t leave our participles
dangling. Out there, silent vacuous space inhales
light and time. Somewhere an asteroid snuck in
between orbits of earth and the sun to its back.
Its silent collision course perfectly invisible,
until today.

p 57, Daily News July 4, 1998

Much of the strength of Interference with the Hydrangea is in its subtlety; the flow of understating and underwriting itself against the world. “After awhile, jumping / is better than lying.” (p 57, Daily News July 4, 1998)

The denser and formally more interesting of the two is the second collection, her third, Viral Suite. Again, broken into structural sections as much as they are thematic, the sections feel tighter than the previous collection, under five headings/titles: Boreal Surreal, HomeoPathoLogic, Elucidata, InArticulations and Infiltration/Transformation. 

The first section, “Boreal Surreal,” works a ten part sequence made up of blocks of prose, writing broken phrases in fiction shapes.

Leeches are blood-sucking freshwater annelids. Opportunist hirundinea
attach themselves to the bodies of hairless mammals engaged in sub-aquatic
activity. Usually in mid-summer. Partially due to an instinctive need for
nourishment and partially, it is believed, out of primal vindictiveness.

p 12, II

The poems in “HomeoPathoLogic” work as a series of two voice poems playing classical language against the other, such as in the first part of the poem “Pulsatilla” (p 23):

Hetaera postulat and pendulous with heavy-chested sighs under her silky
gown. Or rather a kind of hessian, packing material for the muse. Concealing
rhetoric and extreme behaviour.

An early bloomer, the pasque flower resists the snowly chill
of critique. Riding on the winds of change it spreads the lyric seed.

Dependent as a puppy she lives off the avails of adulation. Emotional and eager to
please. Since puberty she has never felt herself. The alternating occipital ache, swollen
dorsum of footstep. Post-partum seething.

Poemeopaths take great aesthetic delight in prescribing the
constitutional type associated with this remedy. Particularly blondes.

The leaps in are heavier, quicker. If the poems in Interference with the Hydrangea exist with a quiet grace underlying their text, the poems in Viral Suite burst with a wild energy, making fast moves on steady feet. As she suggests herself in the poem “Mercurius Solubis,” “fearless” is an appropriate word:

Quick and fearless on the freeway
he yearns for stardom, heavy
metal. Instead delivers draft notices, invoices,
clandestine letters of philandering deities.
Dido’s suicide is not his problem.

p 34, Mercurius Solubis

The same classicism is referenced in the last sequence of the last section, the four part “Casual Mythology” (p 95-98), a sing-song lyric referencing Hera, Sinatra, Uranus and Zeus, writing, “Outside, rain numbs colours dull / and bleeding all over the place / useless as Hera’s tears / too wet / too wet.” (p 95).

Compared to these, the poems in her Interference with the Hydrangea feel more personal and straightforward than the ones in Viral Suite, instead worked more through a lyric hybrid of ideas of science, myth and nature into something other, such as the poems in the “Elucidata” section, written from articles she wrote for the UBC Faculty of Science biannual publication Synergy.

For the same reason the earth revolves around
the sun, a hand falling through any arc of
air will choose the swelling mass of thigh
over nothing, warmth
for meaning.

p 47, Sex In Space Time
Rowley has come a long way from “nothing // at first // a sigh, a tremor” (p 9, Vaccum Genesis), the poems in a Knife a Rope a Book, to poems and collections that feel far more mature, more focused. She reads as though she has a better sense of her explorations; where she is and what she is moving toward.






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