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Worlds at the Brink:
Jan Conn's Edge Effects

Jan-Conn-Edge-Effects
Jan Conn, Edge Effects
London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2012.

The title could not be more appro­pri­ate. In this, Jan Conn’s eighth book of poetry, the poems set me on edge, with char­ac­ters and imag­ined worlds at the brink. Ten­sion arises from sur­pris­ing and often unset­tling jux­ta­po­si­tions of image, dic­tion, or tone: for instance, lines that may be unre­lated by obvi­ous nar­ra­tive or log­i­cal thread yet make me want to stretch my mind to con­nect them, or var­i­ous visions of threat, uproot­ings, cat­a­stro­phes, social, and per­sonal col­lapse. Many of the poems have been inspired by other cre­ative works, notably from the world of visual arts. All are drenched in image, sound and scent, leav­ened by moments of humour.

Sev­eral poems in the open­ing sec­tion depict the road to apoc­a­lypse. With imagery of deserts, cracked earth, and dis­place­ment, they point to what the poet iden­ti­fies as some basic truths: “in the desert, one kills for water” (“Tur­bu­lent Prim­i­tive”); or “The per­ma­nent is leav­ing town” and “Today I am with­out prove­nance, and the rain is on loan” (“The Tail of Ted Hughes’ Fox”). “Space is a Tem­po­ral Con­struct,” the book’s first poem and one of three set in Mex­ico, com­bines images of snails, time, crum­bling tem­ples, the god­dess Diana, a crowned pas­try chef, and hydro­ponic toma­toes to cre­ate a vivid metaphor­i­cal pic­ture of the chaotic march of life. The poem ends with an image of civ­i­liza­tion climb­ing toward a vision of delights, includ­ing “foun­tains of clean, aer­ated H2O.”: Along the route, “all the emo­tional debris of a life­time hov­ers over­head / flash­ing and rotat­ing in a vast ver­ti­cal col­umn / as eager to befriend us as a lost puppy.”

Later poems in the col­lec­tion look at lone women at a turn­ing point, issues of self and fam­ily, the chal­lenges of old age and declin­ing pow­ers, and the poet’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity in the mys­te­ri­ous world of the poem. All are vivid and com­pelling.

Conn’s mas­tery of line and stanza breaks shows in “Real­ity Beside Itself”: “Here in the east, lark­spurs stir and this lost trav­eller / finds her way through a hail­storm, hav­ing left win­dows open // in every pre­vi­ous town.” In the first two lines, the word “lost” evokes risk, while “hail­storm” and the unclosed win­dows sug­gest vul­ner­a­bil­ity. But the final line, by pulling back to show a long his­tory, kicks the emo­tional impact to another level, sug­gest­ing a life­time trail of error and unfin­ished busi­ness.

Conn’s com­bi­na­tion of crit­i­cism and hope keeps this col­lec­tion from being weighed down with gloom. The open­ing stanza of “Teatro Ama­zonas” embod­ies this bal­ance: “The rusted sky­line of the port city wavers. In con­trast / the great south­ern river emanates a turquoise / radi­ant and som­nam­bu­lant, / and the deep moan of a foghorn from another world is / drowned, frag­men­tary.” In the final poem, “Yel­low Moon: Flip Side, or Cherry Ice Cream, Feb­ru­ary, Saskatchewan,” images from the first poem recur – time, pure water (frozen), ice cream—in a set­ting of inno­cence and hope.

This is a book to read, re-read and keep.

 

Jean Van Loon’s short fic­tion has appeared in a num­ber of Cana­dian lit­er­ary mag­a­zines. She has come late to poetry, but is no less grate­ful for it.

 

Arc over the edge with poetry!

 

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