I Love an Old Story: Joanne Arnott’s A Night for the Lady

Storytelling—specifically old, passed-on stories—shape the poetry in Joanne Arnott’s A Night for the Lady. Arnott writes, “I love an old story. Old stories / are the food I eat and / the water I drink.” A conversational tang flavours the poetic voice completely, as if readers are transported to her kitchen table, or perched, listening to her, on stumps around an open fire. One of the recurring themes her stories recount is the never-ending joy to be found in life, even amid the sorrow. Arnott doesn’t favour joy nor shuffle sorrow off to the side, but regales in the humanity of both: “a lament is a mark of the shapes of our lives / the power of our loving attachments / & giving tongue to these.” She knows “we have love, we have grief / these two are guaranteed.” She also knows “every single time we move, something / is left behind.” How refreshing it is to be free of the immutable smiley face emoticons projected at us from all sides!

Ambivalence of feeling is not a new idea, and Arnott has no need to justify it. Rather, she implores her reader to use her senses to simplify and clear away extraneous diversions: “a sense of quality of change // in the feel and taste of things / in the sounds of the morning.” In “a perforated man” Arnott describes how a diabetic artist refuses to waste his daily ritual, and how the detritus from this ritual—the day book of his sugar levels, the injection amounts, the actual needles and syringes—make their way onto a canvas, thus transforming what some might see as a holdback or crutch into a tapestry, a map, the facts of a life. Earlier in the book she writes:

we do not have our bodies
anymore than the world has us
a moment of self-possession passes
in the same way as does everything else

—and the symmetry is apparent. Our consciousness of life provides the wherewithal to shape that life. Our stories are ourselves, and these stories can sustain the disenfranchised and marginalised. She credits the eco-activist “Giles Slade after Raymond Carver” before the poem “watching the earth breathe,” but to my ear she sounds more like Gary Snyder when she writes “we are water settling from the sky / gathering in the folds of leaves.” Arnott doesn’t divide or set herself apart, so even when she doesn’t take part in the fray, she acknowledges that “every good bloodbath / must be followed by a scrub and rinse” as she fetches the mop and bucket—a wry comment on abuse in the poem “Desdemona.”

The one negative tendency that is hard to overlook concerns her use of repetition and variations on the same idea. Frankly this technique only succeeds at trying to sound poetic. The use of “the whole world over / the whole world over / the whole world over” and “o ownership / o ownership” or “not /not /not” seems too self-conscious. I began to notice the accumulation of these iterations about ten pages in. Together with variations like: “by his friends / by his fans” and “making an attempt, launching a dream / rounding up hopes and dreams,” or “bawdy songs and body songs” they drag the good writing down to a standstill, sap it of mystery, and ultimately subvert Arnott’s larger intentions. An easy corrective calls out for less. Finally, I must mention the cover art by Aaron Paquette, which is exquisite. More than adornment, it captures the spirit of the writing in colour and image.

Andrew Vaisius is a poet and poetry reviewer in Winkler, Manitoba. He has a chapbook (Domestic/Imported) out soon designed by Robert Pasternak.


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