Given that nearly a decade has passed since the appearance of her previous trade poetry collection, Site-Specific Poems (2004), there is much to celebrate for the fact that Toronto writer Lola Lemire Tostevin has released Singed Wings. Not that she was idle during that period—much of the past decade and a half of Tostevin’s writing career has equally focused on fiction, with the publication of her most recent novels being The Jasmine Man (2001) and The other sister (2008). For those who admire her poetry, you’ll find that Singed Wings maintains her structures of the sequence-fragment; the book’s composed of six extended meditations on art and life that wrap around and through fragments that accumulate into something very much in the compositional unit of the book-length poem. Fluently bilingual, and working also as a translator of literary works between French and English, Tostevin’s poetry has always felt to me closer to French writing traditions than English ones, exploring a lyrical abstract that requires a particular slowness—very much pushing to slow the reader down so that we can listen. One could say, also, that her poetry as a whole exists as a series of responses—this collection includes sections that respond to works by Camille Claudel, Louise Bourgeois, Betty Goodwin, and Frieda Kahlo. As she writes in her acknowledgements to Singed Wings:
For the last few years, I have explored the creativity of women who practiced their art either under unfavourable social or physical circumstances, such as Camille Claudel and Frieda Kahlo, or into advanced age, such as Louise Bourgeois and Betty Goodwin. I have travelled to several cities to attend Pina Bausch’s dance troupe and choreography as I have for Marie Chouinard. I never miss a novel, a film, a play, an interview, or biography featuring Marguerite Duras, or a book by or a biography of Hannah Arendt, or the films of Agnès Varda. My writing practice is modest compared to these women’s art yet they nudge me to keep on. With each additional year, I grow more grateful.
Over the years, many poets have responded to artwork, including Diana Brebner and Stephanie Bolster, as well as American poet Robert Creeley. But Tostevin’s responses seem more in keeping with Phil Hall’s “An Oak Hunch: Essay on Purdy,” moving very much in the poetry-as-response as opposed to any kind of descriptive lyric. Composed in six poem/sections, Tostevin’s poem-fragments exist as a kind of sketchbook, responding quickly and with incredible clarity, even in the midst of sharp and sudden turns. The second section, “XIV PHILLIPICS,” subtitled “After Cicero,” writes through and responds to the writings of Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, while also working through the subject of aging, specifically the subject of how an aging woman is seen and treated (not necessarily favourably, as one might imagine). As she writes:
Are the years less disagreeable now
Than they will be, say, in her ninetieth?
How did age steal womanhood faster
Than womanhood stole her children?
I, for one, am very pleased about Tostevin’s return to poetry. Just how soon is too soon to ask for more?
rob mclennan’s forthcoming titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014). He runs above/ground press and Chaudiere Books and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews at robmclennan.blogspot.com.
SHARP AND SUDDEN TURNS; A GRACEFUL ARC.