canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

drawing down a daughter

by Claire Harris
Goose Lane Press, 2007 (1992)

Natural Disasters: Poems
by Andrea MacPherson
Palimsest Press, 2007

See also TDR's interview with Andrea MacPherson

Reviewed by Katherine Wootton

Poets Clarie Harris’ and Andrea MacPherson’s writing reflects interest in the same subject, though their voice and technique differ greatly. Harris reinterprets what she portrays as an inherited style to underscore her thematic interest in ancestry, while MacPherson "thieves" and retells her family stories; each of them concerned with the importance of retaining and maintaining their familial mythology, and developing it farther in response to experiences in their present.

Harris’ book, drawing down a daughter, is one narrative, but shifts style and voice repeatedly, finding as many angles as possible from which to attack the subject at hand. There are stories within stories, poetry and prose, Caribbean and Western tones, suggestions of biography and fable, traditional and modern techniques. These are not scattered at random throughout the text, but flow naturally with the story (stories). At the core of her work, as the title suggests, is a pregnant woman speaking to her unborn "Girlchild," essentially introducing her to the world through the stories the mother has inherited and, as the book progresses, lives through. Harris contrasts the richness of the stories of Trinidad and the tropical climate with the cold, sensible, modern convenience of life in Canada. The mother considers what she has taken from her cultural background to a place where, as a writer and woman, she has more freedom to make use of it.

Harris is a confident writer; her word choice is precise and occasionally almost musical. However, this piece was, at times, a little overwhelming. As a Westerner, I found it easiest to relate to the segments where the mother struggles with realities here, her troubles as an immigrant were more straightforward than the somewhat elusive sections where the mother directly addresses her daughter. "here under cool ixora thickets music and her sisters/engage time in intricate forms so full of seriousness from/ their fullcarved lips wordspills sun burnishes" The language in these verses, though still strong and evocative, seemed to come from a place inaccessible to me, preventing me from grasping the emotional weight of the connection between mother and child.

Natural Disasters springs from a different tradition, but Andrea MacPherson, like Harris, speaks of the stories and legend from her family history. This collection of poems is divided into three sections. In the first, MacPherson cleaves to memories, hers and theirs, of her relatives – aunts, grandmothers, mother – giving an overall impression of unhappy women, some delicate, some feisty, but generally thrust down and suffering, usually from their relations with various husbands. In the second, MacPherson speaks from a more immediate place, of love and possession, which involves a lot of quiet moments and quietly impassable distance between lovers. In the third, she concerns herself with those held captive, imagining the small terrors of entrapment in various locales.

In all of MacPherson’s poetry, there is an overwhelming sense of capturing memories, mementos of secret moments or emotions that should not be allowed to entirely fade. She often catches her characters leaving, sometimes fleeing, but always looking backward, reminiscing or ruing. "my face would be turned around/ retrospective". MacPherson’s language doesn’t have the same gloss or power as Harris’, there is some repetition of images (particularly cupped hands) and some failed metaphors (I have never met a pussywillow that felt like rain), though she has some bright turns of phrase, as in the poem that lends it’s title to the book – "I wanted to tell him all this/ explain her in terms of natural disasters". It is clear that MacPherson takes the emotional life incredibly seriously, that no moment of sorrow, regret, or loneliness should go unversified. However, this does lend her collection an almost overly somber air – there is no humour, no irony, to lend more weight to her melancholy by contrast, and provide balance.

MacPherson and Harris both tell their own stories as reflections on and continuations of those they have inherited. Both treat their characters’ emotional lives and their secrets with reverence, as sources of wisdom. Though neither book is flawless, there is beauty to be found in the language, and glimpses of wider truths in the specific flow of their narratives.

Katherine Wootton is a Toronto-based writer, filmmaker and bookseller. She also edits the Book section for the Women's Post.






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