Adams counts herself (in her bio) and one of the poems’ speakers among the last Victorians, and the collection recalls the Victorian art of memento mori (especially photographs of the recently deceased). Such mementos appear literally in “Small Deaths, Sad Interludes” and figuratively in other poems. Ghosts and “the dead” are very real presences, ranging from ancestors and loved ones to the drowned victims of Hurricane Katrina and future space travellers who “aged, shriveled, were born again” while seeking a welcoming planet (“What We Remember”).
Adams’s poems are far from depressing, however. She speaks, in “The Bow,” of how “we make death beautiful, do not waste it.” Sorrow is leavened by sly humour in poems such as “Those Who are Certified Dead Must Sleep in Their Cars” and “Death Comes to the Balcony” (where the presumptive murder victims are potted plants), and throughout by astute observations and fresh images like “tartan and paisley too old to quarrel / slump in loose-tongued truce on creaky chairs” (“Old Among Strangers”).
While various poems touch on moments with the speaker’s children, on romantic entanglements and on women’s friendships, the collection most deeply explores and delicately probes complexities in relations with parents, viewed both as a child and upon growing up. “One died a long death, one’s heart simply stopped / on an autumn night,” Adams writes in “Synesthesia.” And both parents’ lives and deaths, as well as the speaker’s regrets and moments of connection with her mother during that “long death,” are evoked in several other poems.
Poems with contemporary settings tend to be coloured by insomnia and synesthesia. In a frequent perspective from a high-rise balcony, “[t]he river absorbs the shadows, glazes with ice” (“Once We Lived in a Golden Palace”) and some safety from the despair of sleeplessness and the disturbances of dreams is regained.
Language and imagery conjure time and place. In poems such as “Breathing Lilacs” scenes are sepia-tinged, where “breezes harmonized on strings / stretched taut for butter beans to climb” and “whispers [are] lost in victrola strains / from a glowing throat of a window.” Other memories are less benign. Being dressed like a doll with ringlets and “the comfort of [my mother’s] hands in my hair” brings a certain pleasure, though an ambiguous one (“The Last Victorian”). In the book’s first section, poems evoke a childhood where fairy tales carry menace, tigers slip through bedroom windows and a nursery-rhyme owl brings bad dreams. Time is malleable in Adams’s expert hands: In the title poem, history loops back to these childhood images. It “repeats itself like the burp that follows / the long-fingered meal,” and “memories unfold and spread / evergreen, so many branches to sleep beneath.”
By way of disclosure, Adams was my first poetry teacher, and we have maintained warm ties within the Ottawa writing community. This book, her first full collection since Sleeping on the Moon, shortlisted for 2007’s Archibald Lampman Award, is richly rewarding in its beauty, and in reminding me how much I can still learn from her.
Frances Boyle is the author of two books of poetry, most recently This White Nest (Quattro Books, 2018) and of Tower, a novella (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2018) and Seeking Shade, short stories (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2020). Recent work appears or is forthcoming in in Best Canadian Poetry 2020, Event, Prairie Fire, Dreich, Parentheses Journal, Feral and FEED Lit. For more, visit www.franceboyle.com and follow Frances on Twitter and Instagram at @francesboyle19.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.