Joanna Lilley. The Fleece Era. London, ON: Brick Books, 2014.
~Reviewed by Al Rempel
In a voice that is at times happily off-kilter and nearly musical, the poems in Joanna Lilley’s The Fleece Era seek to solve the riddles of her present life in the Yukon and her past familial relationships, which began in the UK. The north poses its own questions. “What’s it like living / in a forest as big as a country?” the poet asks in the titular poem. In “Earth Crack,” she asks,
What if the dotted line
of the Arctic Circle just above me
on the map is a perforation?
What if the piece of world
I’m on tears off?
Her family relationships have their own conundrums—between sisters, between parents—and Lilley delves into these issues from all angles. Here’s one example from “Lady of Gifts”:
Who would think such
a sweet-looking old lady was
built to withstand earthquakes,
would be the last structure standing
when my parents collapsed…
The strength of Lilley’s poetry is the way she pulls the reader off to one side, using language that seems plain enough, but jars the reader awake. From “Farmer Ants”:
When the white lilies arrive, she goes
around the block,
the wind running after her,
picking up the grief she spills.
And later in the same poem,
[she] leans back to watch as sprockets
pull the land in front of her.
A city of supersized windows
that suck in brackish rain,
Or from “Through Heathrow, Terminal Three”: “She’s so tired, pebbles are wedged / into her mouth.” Lilley’s writing can have the unflinching quality of children’s tales from a different time—“She said, last week I stuck a fork / into the soil and heard a scream” (from “Biology Lesson”)—and be just as delightful:
my small voice scrambled by her hearing aids,
tinny as if I were a cookie crumb
balancing on the rim,
shouting from the shore
of my mother’s Atlantic teacup. (“Overheard”)
Lilley tends to use the same diction throughout the book, which can have a numbing effect on the reader. The subject-verb construction predominates—“I stand,” “She rises,” “He knows”—and I sometimes wonder about her choice of line breaks. Poems that change things up syntactically, such as “If I Had Children,” “The Churches Are Full of Men,” and “Forty,” come as a relief. Despite these reservations, there is much to enjoy in The Fleece Era, as Lilley works at the fabric of her past and her current place in life. In “The Middle of Nowhere,” a poem that connects both past and present, the poet begins with a common complaint of those that have moved north: “My family won’t visit this / faraway place of half-year / winters…” and concludes:
My family says I’ve run away
from life, couldn’t cope with
being in the thick of it anymore.
How do they know
where is the thick, the thin?
Here, between the silent aspens,
is the thick of it.
Spliced by my sisters,
pinched between parents:
there’s the thin.
Al Rempel’s books are This Isn’t the Apocalypse We Hoped For and Understories. His poems have been in The Malahat Review, CV2, Event, and The Best Canadian Poetry, 2011. He’s at http://alrempel.com.
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