by Shawna Lemay
McClelland & Stewart, 2001
Reviewed by Joy Hewitt Mann
Against Paradise is Shawna Lemay's second poetry collection. The first,
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
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:
carried through air the scent
of recycled vermouth
aphid green and sepia
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
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.
As ever. (O, Barbarous Moonlight)
Lemay is here at last: the poet in love with Venice and art and authors
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
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
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