Although Dina E. Cox’s work has appeared regularly in journals and anthologies, small flames is her first collection. It’s high time that these accomplished poems were brought together. Her work is mature, candid and refreshingly straightforward—never shrill, never weighted with social or political agendas, never choosing the smart word or phrase over the direct one. She writes of a “tenuous hold / on life,” and many of her poems deal with this tentative connection between present and past, between the imagined and the real. She also touches regularly on her sometimes unsuccessful search for solid roots in the Maritime landscape—places that have a “semblance of conjunction”—that ought to fit like a puzzle but do not. “I’m tempted / to edge them together, cusp and cup, / but it doesn’t work”; there is a disparity between “what we see” and “what we think / we see.” Repeatedly she describes landscape as a replica, a backdrop. A view becomes a “Command Performance… staged for me alone.” These lines are from “Crayola Moon,” a short, satisfyingly round-voweled poem that emphasizes the incompleteness of perception and representation: “The balloon moon hangs heavy / just grazing the horizon / tipping trees as if / some child had taken crayons, / chosen mango orange and outlined / a three-quarters orb /…. having no need / to draw the whole.” And in “Diagnosis,” the word itself distorts the real: “The naming will stick.” What’s out there is altered forever.
Dina E. Cox is a musician (she plays the French horn), so it’s natural for her to use aural as well as visual imagery. Only a musician would write, “I measure horn’s timbre / note by note.” The snow, walked on at midnight, has a “grainy sound / …a kind / of sandpaper friction.” She describes the “phosphorescent whisper” of her bones, the “hiss” of the waning moon (it’s likened to “a deflating volleyball”), and the “boisterous wild arpeggios of dawn.”
Taste (in “Apple”) and the pleasure of touch (in “Westminster Abbey,” she touches “Chaucer’s voiceless tomb”) are also vividly evoked. In “Touching Rodin,” she dares to lay a hand on a cast torso at a museum, then imagines that a lover had “playfully run / knuckles along the rungs of vertebrae.” Caring for her dying father, she takes his “leathered soles” between her hands.
It is a delight to read “Old Barn” without encountering the inevitable three words—grey, leaning and weathered—that I’ve come to expect in every poem on this subject. This is a soft, sensuous, serious poem: the interior, with its “dust, / so thick you could scoop / handfuls,” and the sense of past animal heat and habitation is beautifully presented. In the title poem, there is an “untouchable dome” above the campfire’s flame.
In “The Meanest Flower That Blows,” Dina E. Cox calls the photographed image of a Maritime meadow “an amiable beauty.” As in her other poems, there is no flourish, no excess. small flames, likewise, is amiably beautiful.
Artist and writer Heather Spears lives in Denmark. Her work has won numerous prizes, including the Pat Lowther Memorial Award three times, and the Governor General’s Award for Poetry.