Walking the Line: Wanda Praamsma’s a thin line between

This book, Wanda Praamsma’s first, is a long poem that does not easily reveal itself. At first reading, it is about Praamsma’s journey to Holland to learn through relatives about her maternal grandfather, a renowned Dutch poet. And yet, as she says of her trip, “the point is not always the point in the end.”

The account of the journey forms the poem’s spine, written in a low-key style that occasionally lapses into the bland. Interspersed, often offset on the page, frequently outweighing it in impact, are segments that spring from other travels (most luxuriantly, in terms of images, those from India); from childhood memories of living with an artist parent; from studies of the writer’s craft and philosophical reflections (including quotations from a Sumerian sky god called Anu.)

These varied interjections initially left me puzzled and unsatisfied, their strengths (instances of gorgeous lyricism or acute insight) feeling isolated from a context that could give them greater depth. On second reading, however, I paid close attention to what Praamsma had to say about her grandfather’s work:

the idea of associations

bert wanted prose he wanted poetry he wanted interconnectivity
the Oneness of all things dancing on a page

Clearly, Praamsma is emulating his approach. Consider this graceful transition between seemingly unrelated sections, opening with a segment about India, then moving into an account of the death of her grandfather’s wife:

when saris could simmer the cement floor with colours that tingle
the insides of eyes
when long glistening strands whisper behind creamy cheekbones

when weeks float by and all you’ve talked about are the intricacies
of love

and love lost

we hear about it later
that she died on the highway

Also permeating the long poem is a preoccupation with journalism versus fiction, perhaps unsurprising given the poet’s experience as a journalist. She cites Mavis Gallant’s distinction between journalism and literature as outside versus inside, and refers to a famous poem by her grandfather in which he characterizes himself as a door opening out to space or marking off space. She concludes:

I, too, am a door
I separate space
I am space
I am a thin line between

Perhaps she chose a prosaic style for the main narrative to contrast these two approaches to writing. Yet with more attention to concision, language and line breaks, that primary component might have avoided being outshone by its paratext. This reservation aside, a thin line between is an ambitious book worth reading. It requires effort, but offers rewards of imagery and insight.

Jean Van Loon holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC. Her fiction, non-fiction, poetry and reviews have appeared in Canadian literary magazines, including one story in Journey Prize Stories 19.



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