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Tenderly Urgent:
Kim Trainor's Karyotype

Kim Trainor, Karyotype
London, ON: Brick Books, 2015

Kim Trainor begins with a TV documentary: “We watch bright / threads of her dna unwound / and read from left to right // and learn her history. But where is she, /in the blue-stained karyogram, / this desiccated woman // this Beauty of Loulan, this beauty?” “Karyotype,” an unfamiliar word that literally refers to the gene sequence of a species, opens with a series of poems that describe ancient mummies discovered in the Tarim Basin of China, from which scientists were able to extract and analyze dna, and imagines their lives. The poems unfold, a meditation on human life and suffering, moving back and forth from Loulan (and other mummies) to the one who watches: “She is past / caring, her body now a manuscript / of faded letters and soft words // of mourning… I think I may be of her kind…” The still-beautiful Loulan was found in 1980, some 3800 years after she died, along with remnants of a textile culture: “…at the line’s end / a selvedge is quietly formed / like a scar… // So are we formed // along such ancient human drifting lines.”

In this book the mummies are our entry point, but Karyotype as an overall title is a metaphor for tracing human connectedness and shared sorrow through ancient and modern times, often in the face of the unspeakable inhumanity of war and genocide. In “On the ordering of chaotic bodies of poetry,” we read about “[p]oems [also] slotted into kingdom, genus, species.” Poems take form in the notes of a coroner on a corpse from a mass grave after the Second World War: “a small notebook was found soaked in the fluids of the body and blackened by wet earth. This was cleaned and dried in the sun.” The voice that speaks to us is tenderly urgent, whether singing in spare lyric, or in the plain-spokenness of prose.

It is worth noting that in her blog, Trainor quotes Seamus Heaney: “… in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself… [and] the unappeasable pursuit of this note…keeps the poet’s ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice…”(Crediting Poetry.) Trainor adds, “poetry’s ability to document the savagery of the world is aligned with the form of expression; the right form has to be found…” In this book, she has found it.

In “The semantic fields of glass and other transparent materials in the poetry of Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński,” she invokes a poet whose work depicts the brutality of war and suggests that love is the only force that can effectively defend a human being against it. On the poet Mandelstam we read the words of Nadezhda Mandelstam (Hope Against Hope – Russian Notebook: Voronezh 1935-1937), “… something of his voice is preserved in the very structure of his verse. Nothing can be completely scattered to the winds.” This poet answers, “But so many are. The ones we will never hear.” In “Ash,” she writes, “you could catch [the burning pages] in your hand like snowflakes/ and read the words as they melted to ash.” (Bombing by Serbian nationalists of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina.)

Of the closing sequence, “Nothing is lost,” Trainor has commented that it “places emphasis on the transformative effects of objects in human lives, which is linked to the poem’s exploration of objects found in the mass graves of the Srebrenica genocide.” It circles, prayer-like, a coda or expanded cadence without narration, and dazzles with its form (strict abecedarius in which each stanza contains eight lines, each line following with the same initial letter), in itself a stunning achievement. Buy this book.


Barbara Myers is an Ottawa writer. She is the author of the poetry collection Slide and has contributed frequently to Arc.