Poetry editor for The Fiddlehead and inspirational instructor to many poets, Sharon McCartney, who currently lives in Victoria, B.C., is an icon of contemporary Canadian literature. She has published her poems in book form and her poetry has appeared in many publications; Villa Negativa: A Memoir in Verse is her seventh book of poetry.
Although the style of her work defies categorization, a first reading of the poems in Villa Negativa gives the impression of a rant, intense in the speaker’s reflection of frustration combined with a negative look at life. The poems are satirical as the speaker examines herself, her life and her relationships. She uses words that are simple, in couplets that are well defined, while maintaining a free verse approach, but the presentation is raw and empowered with many emotions like fear, sadness and, yes, even anger. Yet, within the words and emotions, the speaker delves into many of the deeper meanings of life, and death.
Her self-exploratory poem, “I Am Not Who I Am,” is a long poem, at times repetitive in nature as the poet explores the possibilities of who she is by trying to define who she’s not. Mostly written in couplets, there is one long, narrative passage in which the speaker recounts a Facebook message, complete with common texting lingo like “u.” The poem explores a relationship gone sour which transforms into an almost cynical view of life, As the speaker explores a metaphysical study of the human consciousness and the overall human state of being: “I do not know what I am, / but I do know what I am not. / I am not someone who knows what I am.” Though sarcastic, there is a touch of humor to this statement. We are, after all, what we are not.
It’s interesting the way the poet metaphorically describes the cheating partner. He is at first a “husband” then he becomes the “fabricator” because he lies profusely, and later, she calls him a “luthier.” Is this luthier the same cheating husband? Or another partner who disappoints? I find this last metaphoric association the most intriguing as a luthier is a person who builds and repairs string instruments, ones with a neck and a soundbox. The “luthier” may attempt to build and repair relationships, through strings attached, relationships with partners that have a neck and a soundbox (in other words, they can communicate verbally). There’s an underlying note of humor in this association.
The remaining poems in the collection are not as long, but they are equally deep in their study of the speaker’s inner consciousness. She confronts the memories of growing up with a sibling with a neurological condition and frequent grand mal seizures and later facing her own battles with anorexia. Her work is a study of metaphysical theories of consciousness; her reflections project deeper meanings than the angst she overtly shares, as “Our bodies are vehicles for consciousness” (“Agonal and Preterminal”). The choice of words at first appears simple until the reader notes the multiple meanings behind each word, meanings that reflect the speaker’s feelings about her personal life. Her use of vocabulary is almost minimalist in nature. The poetic use of clear, direct language also suggests imagism. Through language, she defines her life in multiple layers and manages to ultimately challenge her life: “Is there any value in exploring this? / Whatever you deny grows stronger.”
How does one define and categorize McCartney’s collection of poems? Do they need definition? Do they need to be placed in a category of one form or another? The thoughts presented are many things: satirical, sarcastic, humorous, rant-like. And yet, they’re also memoir, perhaps even epistolary in that they read like a letter, a written dissertation of life’s inner conflicts. The poet even closes her poetic memoir with the one thing we can all expect in the end. In the form of a prayer (which also happens to be this short poem’s title), she writes: “Whatever death is, / please let it be quiet” (“Prayer”) To which I add, “Amen.”
(updated October 2022) Emily-Jane Hills Orford is a country writer, living just outside the tiny community of North Gower, Ontario, near the nation’s capital. With degrees in art history, music and Canadian studies, the retired music teacher enjoys the quiet nature of her country home and the inspiration of working at her antique Jane Austen-style spinet desk, feeling quite complete as she writes and stares out the large picture window at the birds and the forest. She writes in several genres, including creative nonfiction, memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction. http://emilyjanebooks.ca