Apologetic for Joy by Jessica Hiemstra-Van Der Horst

Reviewed for Quill & Quire
Published online and in print, November 2011

Jessica Hiemstra-Van Der Horst’s first full-length book of poetry incorporates two previously published chapbooks alongside new material. The book explores the nature of artistic creation; thematically, it elevates the visual, sensory, tactile world. Whether focusing on artists, musicians, foreigners, or friends, Apologetic for Joy is an exploration of what it means to bear witness. It is, in the classical sense, a celebratory work of ekphrasis.

Each of the book’s seven sections is so self-contained that the connections between them appear tenuous. “Anatomy for the Artist” is possibly the most constrained. It features a number of great moments – “The first stroke / determines the entire composition” – but also contains a series of odes to Georgia O’Keefe that introduce an element of redundancy. “Eating Quince with Musicians,” which was shortlisted for the Winston Collins/Descant Prize, is possibly the highest note in the book, smoothly blending Hiemstra-Van Der Horst’s overriding concerns: artistic inspiration, emotion, free association, fragmentary speech, and the exoticism (and eroticism) of fruit.

Hiemstra-Van Der Horst uses auditory and visual cues to guide us through the book’s many emotional and geographical settings. In “God,” we find ourselves in a lucid, hallucinatory world, where the eponymous character appears on the kitchen floor, lamenting about frozen chicken wings: “So many wings and no birds, he says… / These wings have nothing to carry.” God and his friend Gerald, both of whom have mental health issues, are compelling characters, and extend an element of otherness also found in poems containing fragments of the South African language Setswana. Although Hiemstra-Van Der Horst writes sensitively and with obvious affection, God and Gerald risk becoming exotic, foreign objects that simply induce a one-way, visceral experience.

Despite this, Apologetic for Joy ultimately achieves its aims of taking delight in encounters and small pleasures, remaining receptive to experience, and searching for suitable words of praise about the world around us.