Although Evelyn Lau’s Tumour is a solid poetry collection on a timeless topic, I’m inclined to warn anyone currently suffering from depression to avoid it. Lau’s collection cuts more keenly than much of Canada’s poetry of hurt, slicing through the tissue of artifice, into the marrow of pain.
Lau’s seventh book of poetry ticks through its well-measured stanzas like a doomsday clock. Here, sorrow for the past, and a seemingly omnipresent fear of her own death and the mortality of those around her, lurks in nearly each skilfully crafted poem.
The collection’s first half, Ancient History, sees Lau fretfully itemizing and lamenting that which has been lost through the ceaseless passage of time: family connections, innocence, hope, the beauty of youth, a sense of history. From “Good-bye Santa Monica:”
Now you are middle-aged, repentant /
most days, lost among the advancing /
youth on the Third St. Promenade, /
their tidal beauty sweeping you aside.
Tumour’s poems are those of a seasoned writer. For the most part, they are technically on point in the rhythm of lines, and, particularly, the effective use of assonance and narrative voice. The author does show a penchant for overly easy internal rhymes and the occasional heavy-handed metaphor, as in the tidal sweep above. Point of view also bounces jarringly from first to second person across different poems in the collection.
Yet, Lau’s use of alliteration works together with the strong imagery of isolation in many of the poems to crisply convey both a linguistic and cultural viewpoint on what it is to be simultaneously part of something and detached from it, from consumerism to hockey culture to heritage, as in “Hong Kong:”
…. You felt visible again,
the night edged with risk.
Somewhere out there were opium dens,
dragons, the bloated hulls of yachts
at the Aberdeen Marina.
This was almost the city of your birth.
In addition to being the book’s title, Tumour is also one of its poems, as well as the title of the book’s second half. The tumour refers to a favourite aunt’s brain cancer, and all of the poems in this section—including those dedicated to Lau’s deceased neighbour—are tales of death, disease and physical decay. Lau shows us herself and others, all yearning for what they want and cannot have, or what they wish their life had been. Lau does try to shine a flickering beyond this darkness by offering readers a bit of humour, mostly in her poems about the aging of her own body, from “Face” to “Vagina” to “Feet:”
….Caked with calluses,
studded with seed corns, you are like the old woman
on the bus who wears a purple hat
strung with birds and fruit and jingly bells—
a dropout in the race for beauty,
Like jokes told across a deathbed though, the late comedy does little to distract from the tragedy that surrounds it.
Anita Dolman’s debut short fiction collection is Lost Enough (Morning Rain Publishing, spring 2017). Dolman’s poetry has recently appeared in Matrix Magazine, Ottawater and Bywords.ca, and is forthcoming in the anthology Canadian Ginger. Follow her on Twitter @ajdolman.
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