The Smooth Yarrow by Susan Glickman

Stevie Howell review of The Smooth Yarrow

Susan Glickman’s newest collection opens with a Celtic incantation about aspiring to embody the virtues of nature. The yarrow sticks alluded to in the title are used in conjunction with the I Ching as tools of divination. In accordance with those referents, The Smooth Yarrow calls on ancient wisdom, is earthy and enigmatic, and trembles with embodied memory and premonition.

The first section of the book is the most arcane and fully resolved, replete with images of witches and persecution, accidental injury and natural decay, salves and wishful thinking. In “Witch’s Tit,” Glickman explores how women were once said to possess bodily marks that proved they were witches. She reasons, convincingly, “That the hand of God / if it bothered to write to us at all would surely be less / inscrutable.”

The poems in “Old Stories” are sketchier, smaller in scope, and more playful. “Hats,” for example, opens with the observation, “Hats just can’t keep a straight face!” Serious subjects do intervene: “Breath” is a meditation on death, focusing primarily on the passing of Glickman’s father, which leads to “a room full of sobbing relatives / a room I hated being dragged to, which felt obscene to me.” It is an evocative, haunting poem that leaves existential questions suspended in the air.

The final section, “In the Garden,” brings the work full circle. Glickman reflects on plants and weather, as well as insect and animal behaviour. Individually, these poems have an intimate, quiet quality that makes them lovely and accessible. But Glickman’s interest is deeper: she draws on the regenerative and uncontrollable qualities of nature as sources of inspiration – even though cultivating these interests has historically made women suspect.

Glickman’s writing is defiant: like yarrow, it is lean and strong, not only beautiful, but possessed of myriad healing properties.


Reviewed for Quill and Quire
Published online and in print May 2012

Stray Love by Kyo Maclear – Three Generations in Search of a Plot

Stevie Howell review of Stray Love

Reviewed for Globe and Mail
Published April 1, 2012 

Kyo Maclear’s second novel, Stray Love, explores themes established in her Amazon First Novel Award-nominated The Letter Opener: Both books explore ethnicity and identity, and feature characters who feel those fundamental elements ill-mixed. In Stray Love, Maclear expands by going international and travelling through time. She also contracts by drawing elements from her own life as the daughter of a war reporter and a visual artist.

Stray Love is written from the point of view of middle-aged Marcel, an artist living in London. Kiyomi, his first love, now-friend and a single mother, experiences a family health crisis and Marcel agrees temporarily to take in Kiyomi’s only daughter, adolescent Iris. The arrival of Iris ignites flashbacks for Marcel: to his own mixed-race, orphaned birth in a country between wars; to his evasive but loyal adoptive father, Oliver, a foreign correspondent; and to being handed off by Oliver to his sometime girlfriend, the alluring Pippa, an emblem of London’s swinging ’60s.

Frequent shifts between past and present destabilize the pacing and narrative. This non-linear approach has events happen in isolation and out of order, so the story is diminished into episodes. Philosopher Galen Strawson describes narrative not only in terms of plotting, but as a mechanism we use to establish the “long-term continuity” necessary to be “considered as a whole human being.” For these strays with broken roots, that internal sense of continuity is precisely what’s missing, so the novel’s form is a direct outcome of the way the characters navigate the world. While many readers will relate to this perspective, others are bound to find it myopic.

Both the era and atmosphere of Stray Love share notes with master novelist Haruki Murakami’s coming-of-age novel, Norwegian Wood. Maclear’s novel also appears to make allusions in nomenclature to Dickens – and certain comparisons do lend themselves, as the book is populated by Dickens-like London-based preteens from broken homes who long for normality, who are acutely status-conscious and who encounter unexpected benefactors.

What bonds these characters is not blood but the shared experience of searching for a unifying narrative thread. This means that apparent character under-development could be defended as intentional. But the dilemma is not that the characters are in flux; it’s that there is not enough variety. Each generation of females is magnetic, open, artistic, full of sass. The successive males are all repressed, distant and ambivalent. These are gendered roles we’ve simply seen play out elsewhere.

The scenes are well-painted, particularly those at various English schools or in Vietnam. Stray Love occasionally exceeds its reach in trying to macramé the characters and the zeitgeist. In one reflection, Oliver is in a phase of capitulation between outbursts of anger and indulgent demands. Of this, Marcel unconvincingly muses, “I understand now that colonialism was coming to a crashing end and Oliver was experiencing pangs of white oppressor’s guilt.” There are a few Forrest Gumpian moments, such as when young Marcel witnesses that iconic Buddhist monk set himself on fire in Vietnam.

Stray Love is a work torn between being non-linear and episodic, or heavily plotted and all sign-of-the-times. It would have benefited from choosing sides. But Maclear should be commended for her ambition in writing a sprawling book about three generations of a multiethnic blended family, spanning at least as many continents and covering more than half a century. The spectrum of these characters’s experiences will likely resonate with a wide cross-section of Canadians. Like Maclear’s strays, we are always expanding and contracting, ebbing between bearing witness and being creators of our own destinies.

No Ordinary Place by Pamela Porter

Stevie Howell review of No Ordinary Place

Reviewed for Quill and Quire
Published online and in print April 2012

Pamela Porter’s fourth book of poetry has focus and form that results from her maturity as an artist; the poet’s confident voice and finely crafted stanzas command the reader’s attention as much as her subject matter. Porter writes with great authority about what could, in lesser hands, emerge as unremarkably quotidian subjects: leaves and branches, the weather, cats. The poet knows her voice is unique: “It’s like I told you, sometimes I live / not wholly in this world: / you know, a person can slip through / the sheer fabric / of what you think life is made of.”

Porter’s poems move deftly between human order and the natural world, between the natural world and the spiritual world, and between the primeval and the afterlife. The “place” in the title is a land where animals and nature personify a range of human thoughts and emotions, where Porter finds solace in listening to “the gospel of the trees.” The book is full of little children wise beyond their years: “Child, speak your truth. / There is no night / that you were not first born into. / There is no sky / that is not already inside you.”

Some of the strongest pieces are about Porter’s father. “My Father’s Grief” announces a Sisyphean ambition: “I want to take away my father’s grief […] I want to capture the moth of his guilt / that has crawled inside his ear”. The poem weaves together many of the book’s motifs: lost innocence, responsibility, and the juxtaposition of the mundane and heroic that is the very essence of being alive.

Porter is a craftsperson first and foremost, and these poems lean toward the traditional. There are no “found” poems here, no jarring line breaks, no experimental exercises. The author’s restraint, combined with her sincerity, is refreshing – and not nearly common enough.