Sketching “A Glimmer of that Majesty”: Swoon by Elana Wolff

At the heart of many poems is Wolff’s contemporary portrait of mystic experience. While many of the mysteries considered in Swoon are ancient, Wolff tends to pair metaphysical questioning with the tangible quotidian. “Tell me: What is the difference / between infinity and eternity?” the speaker asks of one of the world’s most common birds in “Starling,” seeing in the species’ common song a profound knowing: “I’ve heard you trill these syllables— / you must have a feel for their sense.” In these almost epigrammatic lines, the reader senses that transcendence is not a hypothetical for Wolff; it is assured in the smallest, most banal experiences of the everyday.

As in her previous collection, Wolff often turns her attention to anecdote, art, philosophy, myth, and literature in Swoon. Despite this breadth in subject matter, the register of her poetic language and her broader concerns remain constant. Elsewhere, Wolff crafts her meditations from a more explicit lyric standpoint. “Brink,” for example, follows the speaker through an untethered inner experience:

I let my mind go forage,
in the tussle, at the flux,

found some stray ideas
by the brink:

idea of indications faintly
augured in the ether—

Like many of Wolff’s other poems, the progression of “Brink” appears at least partially dependent on the logic of sound, propelled by alliteration and assonance and a short, taut rhythm with no more than three or four stressed syllables per line.

I found myself particularly drawn to the poems in Swoon that read as takes on origin myths, though I could not always identify the source text—if there always is one. It seems that Wolff’s interest in mythology, especially biblical mythology, has led her to imitate the form with her own stories. “When We Were Fish” for example, references a pre-historic past more suggestive of widely accepted scientific theories than biblical tradition. Still, the tone remains reverent, yearning:

our brains were small,
our vision never forward.

Sometimes we had grief
as part of the sea

our tears could flow & never show.
Life was elementary.

Your mouth on my mouth made majesty of me
when we were fish

the matrix was our water.
Always we were washed.

Now we’ve air, much bigger brains,
our vision is redundant, still there’s grief.

Your mouth on my mouth—unwashed.
A glimmer of that majesty.

Ending on a note of longing, these lines showcase the poet’s use of music, established here with internal rhymes and a sparse use of repetition, including anaphora and epiphora. Occasionally, Wolff veers towards the tidy singsong, but these detours are brief. Much like psalms, her poems are skillful examples of the poet’s capacity to both sing and swoon.


Annick MacAskill is the author of two poetry collections, No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), which was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and shortlisted for the J.M. Abraham Award, and Murmurations (Gaspereau Press, 2020). Her poetry has recently appeared in MuseMedusa, The Humber Literary Review, and Best Canadian Poetry 2019, among others. She lives in Kjipuktuk/Halifax.


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