Historical and Personal: Vancy Kasper’s Rebel Women

Immerse yourself in Rebel Women and experience both Toronto’s Rebellion of 1837 and the death of Vancy Kasper’s friend, poet Ayanna Black. The first section of Kasper’s book enlivens the Rebellion through historical, sensory and familial details so that readers live through the privation, persecution, grief and, above all, resilient courage that plants Kasper’s own matrilineal line within our hearts. Kasper’s second section, on the other hand, poignantly chronicles cancer’s fatal progression in her treasured friend. Rebel Women’s two parts do a pas de deux through intertwining imagery, themes and poetic forms.

Kasper’s Introduction contextualizes the Rebellion: defeated by trickery in the 1836 election and deprived of an appeal mechanism, MacKenzie’s Reform party mimics the armed protest that had led to Britain’s Great Reform Bill. However, The Family Compact Tories jail and hang the Rebels and torch their properties because “armed rebellion [is] an act of treason” (“Historical Notes”). Ancestral photographs deepen the immediacy and potency of the impact of Kasper’s work; however, a family tree would have helped to clarify who’s who in each generation. Kasper’s brilliantly distilled imagery and evocative details situate the reader in media res. The dashed dreams and the dailiness of living within a revolt not only become contemporary, but also emblematic of any polarizing situation. For instance, Vancy’s matriarchal great-great grandmother, whose photograph portrays an indomitable spirit, is introduced as fixing “to roll the Christmas pies.” This household image is linked to the conflict: “The icy ground … is thickened by their Rebel sons” (“Rebel Women”). Just as pie filling thickens, so do atrocities under grievous differences. Throughout the collection, Kasper connects common activities with the dislocation and tragic results of particularly divisive viewpoints.

Rich, ripe, resonant, Kasper’s poems showcase a poet in her mature and creative prime. The reader is there, “with pitchforks under, pies on, their tables” (Rebel Women, 10). And we/she “…will ride slowly …down the Family Compact Street / past men who spit on the ground at her” (“Catherine Shepard, January 1838”), will wade “through ashes buttering her house” (“What a Rebel Woman Knows”). Significantly, buttering here revisits the initial pie-making image.

Vividly, readers are also by Ayanna’s bedside: “As [Ayanna] lifts her arm, now savaged of flesh. / We are toasting the biggest black day in history [Obama’s win]” (“Big Black Sunshiny Day”). The violence of the word savaged echoes the Rebellion. Another historic link: Britain’s Great Reform Bill and Obama’s reformist triumph. More food and combat connections: “She knows these things inside [cancer cells] / will enjoy eggs and milk so alien / to her 90 pound once rigid vegetarian body.” Ayanna also has “a little German … blood thrown in” (“Bequests”), which reverberates with the German in the Rebellion poems: “God breathes hope into us, liebchen” (“Maria Van Egmond, January 1838”).

Kasper’s portrayals of the Rebellion and Ayanna’s death transcend time and place to all battles and to the women worldwide who

… dream of wood violets,
trillium thick enough to wash their hands in,
with their men home, turning fresh earth,
grinding axes, mending watches;
root and wild rose
clambering, modest, free. (“What the Women Knew About Tory Champions of Law, Order”)

Kasper’s exquisite lines encompass us all, simply desiring to live our daily lives, left in peace. The sensuous beauty and elegance of the poetry amply serves its historical and personal mandate. The multiple connections are deeply satisfying in their flawless symmetry.

Katerina Fretwell’s seventh poetry collection, which includes her art, Class Acts, was launched in 2013. Her sestina “Kissing Cousins” was shortlisted for the Winston Collins Poetry Prize 2012 and Class Acts is included in Kerry Clare’s “Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2013: Poetry.”


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