You may think that in the age of Twitter, poets would shun the outsized proportions of a long poem. Thank goodness some don’t. Calgary writer Vivian Hansen has chosen the ideal form for exploring the interconnectivity of generations and cultural/personal identity in her narrative long poem, A Bitter Mood of Clouds.
Hansen, whose work has explored women’s issues, landscape, and immigration, creates a vast lyrical space in which to unfold the story of Anna/Arne, a hermaphroditic predecessor, who, during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, struggles with gender identity. The scope is threefold: primal, past, and present. The landscape is occupied by Nazis, Fates, ancestors, and shared dreams.
The opening lines instantly set the tone, describing Anna/Arne’s birth in the register of mythic verse. Jordemor is both midwife and the jorde-mor or mythic earthmother:
Jordemor is satisfied,
the baby’s head appearing
as a bloodied harvest moon,
Goddesses of disir have departed
With Anna’s appearance come the Norns, pagan spirits of destiny who occupy Yggdrasil and influence human lives. They are Skyld, the future; Wyrd, the past; and Verdandi, the present. Their interpolations appear beside the main text as they observe, interfere with, and sometimes change outcomes. When the ancestors move to the new world and are severed from their culture and landscape, the Norns disappear. But they reappear at poem’s end through the narrator’s re-engagement with her past.
Hansen’s depiction of Arne and the tenderness with which his mother and family members embrace him is convincing and affecting (not polemic). His cousin Marta (the narrator’s mother), who has an affinity with supernatural/psychic phenomena, accepts him fully. When she meets the croaky-voiced “girl”:
Ham-Anna stands feral and stoney
like a hedgehog avoiding a stick …
Ham-Anna reminds her of the Norns …
… they have summoned
the source of their covenant:
it is about Kin.
The one false note, however, was the moment Arne spoke in his “own” male voice, which seemed poetically unconvincing.
I initially resisted the prosaic poems of the present, which sounded more mundane than the narrative about Arne. Without the supernatural and the “territory symbolled with swastikas,” they felt strangely eventless. But on rereading, I understood that they were essential as one of the layers in this genealogical stratum.
Throughout the work Hansen deftly weaves references to slugs—themselves hermaphrodites—their vulnerability, their resemblance to female genitalia and tongues, and their habit of leaving behind silvery trails, not unlike the faint traces of ancestors still subtly present in our lives.
With its deep sense of place (“the peculiar greenspeak of bog”), the poem builds its weight cumulatively until the separate threads weave gradually into a single, greater fabric. It’s not always easy to sustain such a momentum, but Hansen has managed it eloquently.