canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Small Arguments
by Souvankham Thammavongsa
Pedlar Press, 2003

Reviewed by John Baglow

This is a gloomy first book, informed by a sense of vulnerability, the poet finding herself projected into the small lives of insects and fruit, and always on the defensive. Her right to exist, to have place, is continually questioned. Indeed, the theme of this collection, one maintained with great integrity throughout, is that the world she lives in poses this question at every moment.

The title, Small Arguments, sums up that theme: the word “small,” in fact, recurs many times in the text, and that text is set in squinty 8-point type. It is as though permission were being asked to speak, similar to the rising inflection. The arguments are indeed small, indirect, not really arguments at all, more tremulous suggestions.

The author’s guises are gentle pleas for difference and freedom. A tangerine is a “small, deferred” orange, it asks why it has “not yet filled out” but there can be no answer (“The Tangerine”). The blood orange is “born this way,/ stricken down/ before labour raised it”; it bears “the mark of a body/ learning to heal” (“Blood Oranges”). A grapefruit appears as a sacrificial victim, its insides “will blare red”, a “heaviness/ branched with soft bone” (A Grapefruit”). An orange has “no place/ from which water/ can break, no opening”; when you peel it, you learn only “the bitterness/of skin and seed” (“An Orange”).

The natural world contains the record of its own daily defeats: rain, for example, is shut out from us, whatever arms or hands it has “have never been held”, its mouth has “never been kissed” and its heart is “beating/ always against everything” (“Poem For The Rain”). Snow “tries so hard/ to be like the rain”; yet “everything in this world/ is against it/ even the sun” (“Snow”).

As for insects…a grasshopper “leaps/ into heaven,/ asking/ for a place”, but “heaven/ turns it away/ places it/ back into this field/ its small body/worn down and beaten” (“A Grasshopper”). A fly “knows/ there is nothing/ to keep it here/ only/ the breaking of a wing,/ the thick glass/ put in its way,/ and the closing of/ an open door (“This Fly”). A potato bug holds “in the close/ of its chest, a small grain” (“The Potato Bug”). This is a world of frogs in pickle jars, of dead or dying butterflies, bees, cockroaches and dragonflies. Earwigs are born “holding out their limbs/ to a world that will not/ hold them” (“Earwigs”).

There are, here and there, small affirmations: a firefly “casts its body/ into the night/ arguing/ against darkness and its taking/…a small argument/ lending itself to silence,/ a small argument/ the sun will never hear” but one that triumphs over darkness, which, “unable to hold against/ such tiny elegant speeches,/ opens its palm/ to set free a fire” (“A Firefly”).

Yet the overall sense of threatened fragility that defines this book remains constant. There is no ecstasy in these lines, no surges of passion, just the quiet, despairing sensibility of the snail in the poem of that name who, like Souvankham Thammavongsa, “quietly folds/ its body/ into a small cathedral” with its “small questions.”

John Baglow is a young poet trapped in an old critic’s body. His latest collection is Journey Under Glass (Penumbra, 2004).






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