Candace Fertile

Flowers We Will Never Know the Names Of

By 
Cathy Ford
Mother Tongue Publishing, 84 pages, $18.95
Reviewed by 
Candace Fertile

On December 6, 1989, a gunman raging against feminists killed fourteen women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. In 1991, that day was declared the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. It is sobering to contemplate how little has changed.

Flowers We Will Never Know the Names Of is Cathy Ford’s commemoration of the victims through a long poem using the language of flowers. The poem is constructed of two main parts: the first a numbered sequence that alphabetically incorporates the names of the murdered women and the second an alphabetical exploration of flowers and their symbology. The link between the two parts is seamless and beautifully moves the reader from the particularity of loss to an overwhelming sense of grief.

The first fourteen pages identify the victims’ first names but not the names of specific flowers. The flower imagery is general: 

     In flowers, a language where one word, a naming, is breath, 
     is voice, is soul

In the second part, Ford revels in precise flowers. The poem moves smoothly using boldface to highlight letters in the alphabet sequence and italics for the dozens of names of flowers: 

     night falls: blue convolvulus, night convolvulus, bleeds white
     not to forget: rosemary, modesty, night jasmine, kind hearted in
               sorrow

The structure is elaborate and careful, but Ford mindfully breaks the patterns when doing so suits the poem, just as so much was broken with the deaths of these women. In a particularly powerful pattern change, she omits end punctuation for most of the poem, but the final page is heavy with periods: 

     Roses. Remembrance. By any other unknown
     name. Do not. Forgetting. Burn this poem. 

The exhortation to burn the poem is preceded by the command “Do not forget,” and clearly poetry is a way to remember. Naming is also a way of identifying or giving life, so Ford’s control of when names are used and the abundance of flower names emphasize how the fourteen women’s lives have been shortened. They are flowers lost. 

The poem is finely calibrated and extremely dense, often oblique. At times, emotion overtakes syntax, as surely as that happens in life and in the face of death. Feelings are keenly developed by the detailed imagery. Ford supplies an afterword and a section called “Notes on the Text,” which seem rather academic compared to the immense pathos of the poetry. 

Cathy Ford approaches this terrible subject with skill and passion. And in the spirit of the poem, I think there’s only one way to end this review: Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, and Annie Turcotte.

Whisk

Yoko's Dog Whisk
By 
Yoko’s Dogs
Pedlar Press, 72 pages, $20.00
Reviewed by 
Candace Fertile

Reviewing a poetry book by a collective in a magazine created by a collective is a lovely fit, and Whisk by Yoko’s Dogs is an utter delight to read. Pedlar Press has produced a beautiful little book full of gems.

The members of Yoko’s Dogs work together on all the poems to create a truly group effort. No poem is credited to a specific poet, since each poem is worked on by all four women in the group. Evidently, a format was selected, one modelled on haikai no renga, a series of linked poems similar in form to what most readers of poetry in English would call haiku.

The poems predominately use short words, gathered into short lines, in stanzas of two or three lines (which alternate not only through the individual poems but also through the entire collection), in poems of four (the most frequent) to twelve stanzas. The master of the haiku, Basho, appears in “Ukiyo-E” (translation: pictures of the floating world): “the bowl’s empty/ Basho sleeps in a windowless room,” and while the Japanese influence is evident, the Canadian landscape is the focus. The entire collection or sequence could be seen as pictures of the worlds the Dogs inhabit.

One of the worlds consists of nature and animals and food, the basics of life in many ways. The Canadian fascination with weather is captured in many of the poems, and some of the most arresting have to do with winter.

In “The Weather,” for example, the following lines are impossible to forget: “tufts of snow on bare branches / forecast marshmallows on sticks,” and Whisk is packed with such memorable images. The simplicity of the diction belies the richness and depth of the visual components. In “Red Spotted Eft,” which begins by saying “briefly, it’s easy / to be ruthless,” the shift to delicacy keeps us in the largely gentle world of the book:

crouching

a man caresses a fledgling sparrow

with his bus pass

These small, precise poems are gems to be savoured. The words and their placement are paramount. Punctuation is minimal; no periods are used and commas are infrequent. The most common mark is the dash, which smoothes the path of words as it often marks the traditional “cutting” of the haiku form. The Dogs play with the form, and while this creation was no doubt much work, it’s evident they are having fun. Better yet, the fun is being passed on to readers who must surely marvel at the silky composition. I loved the final lines of the book, which allude to master imagist poet William Williams’s “This Is Just to Say.” Whisk is about saying—and cold sweet plums of poems.

Candace Fertile, a member of the Room collective, lives in Victoria, B.C.

Currently on Newsstands

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    Edited by Rose Morris, Kayi Wong

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