Bernadette Wagner. this hot place. Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 2010.
Reviewed by Andrew Vaisius
When a poet chooses the words of first-hand experience as the way of framing her poetry she opts for a difficult path. What might be extraordinary about crazy Uncle Ted to the writer may be totally unmoving, or simply old hat, to the reader. Ultimately, she must successfully poeticize the mundane in order to make Uncle Ted someone we care about—very much how good fiction works. It isn’t surprising how many experience-based poems hang heavily and prosaically. Bernadette Wagner’s first volume of poetry, this hot place, redolent of her full life as a feminist, activist, mother, and rabble rouser, admirably struggles to reach her readers with the experiences of her own life and the lives of her sisters in the good fight. When she succeeds she is reminiscent of Helen Potrebenko at her sharpest and least compromising. Success comes when she remains faithful to the experience instead of being overly conscious of the writing process. In “Something Else,” Wagner assumes an “it’s-bad-when” narration while leading up to a bullying incident. She skillfully steers into the personal and particular, as we find that it is her son being victimized, and she becomes a tigress snapping at any animal wishing to take liberties with her cub. The writing here is palpable and charged. Yet what the poems cry for is a proportional measure of self-doubt. The book, trisected into Maiden, Mother and Crone sections, mirrors the growth, maturation and wisdom of women in lives that are wallpapered with put-downs and abuse. But things gravitate toward black and white, and we are too often provided only one perspective to view an infinitely faceted womankind. The poems have the talky, casual feel of a conversation around a kitchen table, sometimes to their detriment. When Wagner writes about a tea cup that “still holds grief / three decades after Grandma’s death,” it sounds flat and clichéd. Contrast this with the crotchety narrator of the poem, “While Corporate Revenues Top Seven Billion She Steals.” A woman is in a mall, looking at wooden blocks for her young children. In a moment of complexity, truth and doubt converge. The protagonist wavers until she looks deeper into the mess of modern life, and comes out stronger: “stickered Made in China where, she knows, gears and buttons / churn out purchases, plastics, assorted other toxins, and / more of what she thinks she just might need.” That last line supports the weight of a poem that remains genuine to its author in all her frailty, stubbornness, persistence and failure—a complete woman.
Andrew Vaisius directs a child care centre in southern Manitoba, when he is not among family or reading poetry.