Diana Hayes, Toronto born, has lived on both Canadian coasts, but currently resides on the blissfully peaceful Salt Spring Island. A poet and an artist (photographer), Hayes was inspired, encouraged, and befriended by another Salt Spring Island artist, Phyllis Webb (1927-2021). Hayes wrote this collection of poems to pay tribute to a mentor, leading the viewer/reader on a journey of its own making, one that encompasses the world but has its roots on that small, compact community on an island in British Columbia’s gulf islands in the Salish Sea. The compilation of poems, Gold in the Shadow: Twenty-Two Ghazals and a Cento for Phyllis Webb, is a journey through friendship, time, place, and the overall mosaic of what it means to be Canadian.
The poetry forms Hayes chose to honour her friend are interesting. As the book title indicates, there are twenty-two ghazals, which are amatory poems or odes of ancient Arabic origin, and one cento, which is a poem that uses verses and passages taken from other writers, usually the classic authors like Homer and Virgil. Since both forms lend well to expressing life’s pains and the joy of love, these two forms work well with the passion Hayes shares for her connection with another creative mind.
Hayes’ use of the ghazal is less classical and more Canadian, following in the footsteps of New Brunswick poet, John Thompson (1938-1976), whose ghazal form proceeds with couplets, which at first appear quite random as there is no obviously logical progression of narrative and no defining thematic connection. Phyllis Webb adopted Thompson’s Canadian ghazal form and developed it further, so the form became both poetic and visual, as abstract and textured as Webb’s paintings, landscapes defying habitation or comprehensive connectivity.
Hayes’ ghazals are like collages: collections of random thoughts, ideas, images, and historical and literary trivia. I found this particularly poignant in poem “IX,” which has a direct connection to a painting by Phyllis Webb titled Hearing Shadows. In this poem, she uses words like “basque,” an old language with a unique structure not found in other languages, to create an impression she describes as “Language hiding but not lost.” Her poem is a painting in words, making history both visual and literary while defining a sense of place and being, a collage of life fragments.
Hayes’ ghazals are reflective—“I return to Spirit Mountain [the title of one of Webb’s paintings] while your brushes mix the paint”—thought-provoking—“Skin without beauty, beauty without bone. / Everything else tossed to the shadows or gored by horns”—and sometimes rather sad—“Grief bathes the lungs. Broken hearts repair between beats,” and “We did not know then how loss gives way to water. / How words witness the rent heart, inviting praise.” Hayes captures human emotions in words in much the same profound way that Webb captures the same emotions in her art.
Hayes’ cento is also a patchwork of ideas mostly derived from lines of Phyllis Webb’s “Mad Gardener to the Sea”, as shared in her book, Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti Ghazals (Coach House Press, 1984), The Sea is Also a Garden (Ryerson Press, 1962). The form is abstract, non-linear, reflective patches of thoughts, ideas and musings, both prophetic and contemplative: “Word ready to pounce out of the thunder. / Wings, uprush of inspiration, brush.” The cento comes at the end of the collection, a final tribute to Webb as well as a decisive demonstration of both women’s skill with form, words, thoughts and written images.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.