canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

News & Smoke: Selected Poems
by Sharon Thesen
Talon Books, 1999

Review by Aidan Baker

This collection of poems features selections from Thesen's six books of poetry, of which only one is still in print, and some of her previously uncollected poems which have hitherto only appeared in magazines. Thesen's poetry is very spare and precise, which mirrors her publishing history. She first started writing in the 60s and did not publish her first book, Artemis Hates Romance, until 1980.

There was a ten year period between the late 60s and the late 70s in which she did not write at all, but rather, as she states in her introduction, "listened, edited, and thought about poetry". Such premeditation might suggest stiff and sterile verse, but Thesen's poetry is certainly not. It is meticulous and exact, yes, but it is also intense and, in its clarity and precision, beautiful. At the same time, her subjects veer from the ridiculous to the sublime, the sublime in the ridiculous: she is equally comfortable writing about Artemis' dissatisfaction with love ('Artemis Hates Romance') as she is writing about the sky-diving Elvises in the film HONEYMOON IN VEGAS ('On First Watching "Honeymoon in Vegas"').

However disparate the poems in this collection, spanning a writing career from the late 70s to the late 90s, they are united by a certain sense of mistrust. A lack of faith in the foibles of human culture; a dislike of the artifice of human existence. In the poem 'Being Lost, As Usual', the title itself a comment on the human condition, the speaker states: "Listen, I've never been lost / in the geography, / only in the map". The speaker may have been lost, but it was not in the natural world, it was in our representation of the world; lost in our artifice. However, the ability to recognize that fact, to admit one is lost, offers some sort of redemption.

Thesen summarizes this theme, and the collection in general, directly in her introduction:

Hope is there in the flowers, it seems; awfulness in the construction, the traffic, the lifeless ugliness of managements and institutions, and particularly in the various stalinisms that pass for "thinking" and "caring." The depression that ensues - and the odd graces of beauty, in whatever form, that make things real again, are enacted in the language of the poems.

Thesen's poetry displays an ambiguous mistrust of human institutions, yet an ability to move beyond that mistrust to a sort of inner peace; an ability to extract an odd sense of beauty from the sometimes depressing realities of existence.








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