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Simple Truths:
Adele Wiseman's The Dowager Empress

Adele Wiseman's The Dowager Empress
Adele Wiseman, The Dowager Empress
Toronto: Inanna, 2019.

Primarily known for her work as a novelist, fans of Governor General’s Award-winner Adele Wiseman may be surprised to learn of her posthumously published poetry collection, The Dowager Empress. It was rare for Wiseman to share her poetry while she was alive, but editor Elizabeth Greene writes in the book’s introduction that she felt this side of Wiseman needed to be shared, despite the risk of publishing works Wiseman may have considered unfinished.

The risk was well worth it. These works offer Wiseman’s clever, stripped-down take on everything from nature, history, and faith to love and the creative process.

Even a brief skim of this collection reveals that Wiseman knew these aspects of the human experience intimately. With phrases like, “Experience, it seems, / affects the expectations, / not the dreams,” and “Eve and Adam kiss, / Taste innocent wedded bliss, / Hear a little hiss,” from her poems “Experience it seems” and “Rhymed Primal” respectively, each page is imbued with an enduring sense of wisdom not easily won.

This wisdom is displayed in the sage advice for lovers, writers, and historical figures that Wiseman weaves into her pieces. The first poem of the collection, “Never Put a Poem Off,” addresses the fickle reality of the creative process, cautioning against the folly of asking “a flash of verse to wait / Till you find pencil, pen or slate.” In “Eyes meet, you smile,” she captures the feeling of being in love, for better or worse:

Oh I admire the ease
With which your glance
Can engineer
My fall,
My rise.

Wiseman cautions without ever preaching and manages to speak from the heart without ever sounding guarded; if she is the Dowager Empress, then she has very well lowered the drawbridge herself to let us readers into her mind’s palace.

Wiseman’s open-hearted approach to giving advice is complemented by her poetry’s simplicity. While she is skilled enough to employ rich metaphors and elaborate imagery, as she demonstrates in “River of Time” and throughout “The Dowager Empress Suite” section of the collection, she often forgoes extravagant language in favour of succinct musings. Some poems are as short as three lines but, as her poem “Friendship” shows, that’s all the space Wiseman needs to tell a full story.

While there is a calm sense of melancholy and self-awareness that permeates much of the collection, there are a handful of poems that break from this tradition. Wiseman’s voice emerges in a whole new way in “I CANNOT,” a stand-out for its break from the form, tone and content found throughout the collection. Its all-caps cathartic cry for freedom and independence is so intense it seemingly resists the confines of the page. Another curious entry is “In our play,” where the sexual innuendo is undeniably present, yet tastefully incorporated: “In the climax of our play / the parts come / together.” With the humour of “Typewriter Blues,” Wiseman shows that she doesn’t take herself too seriously—and really can do it all.

The Dowager Empress is timeless. Wiseman’s poetry is heart-breaking in its raw honesty and comforting in its familiarity. Her clever word choices and turns of phrase feel human without ever treading into clichéd territory. This collection effortlessly balances the intimate voice of an individual with universal appeal.

 

Amelia Eqbal is a recent graduate of Western University. She is a freelance writer based in Mississauga who dabbles in music and theatre when the opportunity arises. Previous credits include Poetry London, Polemical Zine, and Semicolon.

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