Annick MacAskill

Look After Her

A girl with part blue shadow over the right side of her face, grabbing on to a swinging rope
By 
Hannah Brown
Inanna Publications, 448 pages, $22.95
2020
Reviewed by 
Annick MacAskill

Packed with action and intrigue, and impeccably paced, Hannah Brown’s debut novel Look After Her is a gripping, accomplished piece of feminist historical fiction that provides insight into the depths of our connections and the limitations on knowing one another, even in the most intimate of relationships. The novel tells the story of Hedy and Susannah, two teenage sisters living in early twentieth-century Vienna. Shortly after the death of their parents, the sisters are kidnapped and held captive in a brothel. The pair eventually manage to escape, and the novel follows the young women over the subsequent years as they cross Europe, separating only to come together again, finding themselves along the way in milieus both luxurious and perilous.
     As a piece of historical fiction, the novel bears the marks of thorough research without overwhelming the reader with detail and explanation. Brown’s prose is consistently fluid, and the novel’s various settings—Austria, Italy, and England between the two World Wars—are well conveyed, making for an engrossing reading experience. Soon after their escape from the brothel, Hedy and Susannah find themselves practicing psychodrama, a version of group psychotherapy founded by the Romanian psychiatrist Jacob Moreno, who is summed up by Hedy in a passage marked by the author’s subtle, dry humour and attention to detail:

But therapy had moved to the suburbs as Moreno had taken a bride and his practice to Bad Voslau. I missed the focus on physical movement and talking companionably afterwards with the others. I saw a photo of him in the newspaper. He was sitting in front of a wall covered in ivy. A good suit, but the trousers needed lengthening. You could see the top of his boots.

     The story moves along at a steady clip, creating an effect that is almost cinematic (Brown is also a screenwriter), bringing to mind the enthralling, woman-centred historical fiction of the American writer Amy Bloom, author of Away and White Houses. While I found myself quickly adjusting to the plot and the novel’s narrative voice, I was caught unaware by a well-crafted twist in the story. Without going into detail, I will say this: Look After Her’s unexpected turn triggers a renewed interest in Hedy and Susannah’s sororal relationship, complicating the reader’s initial impression of the two. e elegance of the ensuing plot and character development bears the mark of an exceptionally talented prose writer and world builder. I look forward to reading more from Brown, who in her debut has already accomplished something remarkable, revisiting at once a familiar setting (early twentieth-century Europe) and a familiar plot point (the treasured yet fraught relationship between two siblings), while crafting something entirely her own.

Annick MacAskill’s poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies across Canada and abroad. Her debut, No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and shortlisted for the J.M. Abraham Award. Her second collection will appear with Gaspereau in 2020. She lives in Halifax. 

 

Pamela Mordecai: On Heart Language and Performance Poetry

Pamela Mordecai - Room's 2019 Poetry Contest Judge

Pamela Mordecai is the author of over thirty books of fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and writing for children. In what follows, Mordecai discusses her writing practice, the role religion plays in her writing, her choice to write in Jamaican Creole, and what she will be looking for as the judge for Room’s 2019 Poetry Contest, which is open until August, 2019.

Painter, Poet, Mountain: After Cézanne

By 
Susan McCaslin
Quattro Books, 72 pages, $18.00
2016
Reviewed by 
Annick MacAskill

Ut pictura poesis (“Just as painting, so, too, poetry”), perhaps the most famous line of Horace’s Epistola ad Pisones (“Letter to the Piso Brothers”), is quoted toward the middle of Susan McCaslin’s fourteenth poetry collection, and could well have served as the book’s third epigraph (the collection opens on two quotations: one from Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne, the other from the painter himself). In this book, McCaslin explores Cézanne’s life and work, combining ekphrasis, character sketches, and lyric meditation. Beyond the post-impressionist himself, the poet is interested in considering his reception among other painters, philosophers, and writers, including the book’s speaker, an incarnation of McCaslin, whose peregrinations in France and British Columbia provide a structural backbone to the collection. 

Not surprisingly, McCaslin considers some of Cézanne’s iconic paintings in a number of ekphrastic poems, which delight in their detailed, sometimes startling descriptions. So, for example, are “light-sculpted bathers / softened into a complex attention” in “Cézanne’s Sacre Coeur [sic] (Mont Sainte-Victoire),” while grasses are “chartreuse” in “Cézanne’s Baigneuses.” No less compelling are the poet’s portraits of Cézanne’s family and friends, like “La Mère,” which opens with a physical description:

Sombre in black
        smudged gypsy cheekbones
white kerchief forming a slight widow’s peak

Why did he later douse her only portrait
        in heavy black paint?

From there, the poem moves on to the rift between Cézanne and his family, illustrated by a biographical anecdote: “All we know / is that when Hortense burned his mother’s effects / he stumbled alone on the roadways / for hours”.

These portraits and references are accompanied by reflections on the painter’s place in art history. McCaslin also uses Cézanne’s life and paintings as a way to reflect on her writing. In “On Attending the Hungarian Sinfonetta’s Stabat Mater Concert (Église Saint Espirit [sic], Aix-en-Provence),” this reflection extends to a comparison with music, implicitly capable of something beyond the reach of poetry and the visual arts: 

Sitting in the nave with Cézanne 
 who here      regularly   unaccountably  attended mass
        (convention?       some deeper call?)

I wonder who wouldn’t turn to music— 
 this tingling in the cells 

Elsewhere, Cézanne’s France and the speaker’s home in British Columbia converge in the poems “Mont Sainte-Victoire and Golden Ears” and “Mont Sainte-Victoire and Mount Baker.” In the former, the speaker wonders how Cézanne would react to the Canadian landscape: “If Cézanne could be airlifted here / would he be undone?” Similarly, she looks to Cézanne’s artistic career as a mirror for her own in the second of these poems: “His mont and my mountain / precedent antecedent to / us late coming artists and poets”. These digressions stray somewhat from the sparkle of some of the earlier, more focused poems, but provide a nice sense of space in the volume. Part art criticism, part biography, part lyric journey, Painter, Poet, Mountain studies the intersection of inspiration, experience, and creation that is inherent to various forms of artistic expression. 

Annick MacAskill’s poetry has appeared in journals including Room, The Fiddlehead, Arc, and CV2. Other work has been longlisted for the CBC’s Canada Writes Poetry Prize. She is the author of the chapbook Brotherly Love: Poems of Sappho and Charaxos (Frog Hollow Press, 2016). She currently lives in Kitchener.

For Your Own Good

By 
Leah Horlick
Caitlin Press
2015
Reviewed by 
Annick MacAskill

Leah Horlick’s second collection of poetry, For Your Own Good, is a fictionalized autobiography that focuses on a violent lesbian relationship. Following her debut Riot Lung (Thistledown Press, 2012), this second volume reads in some ways like a response to the first. Exploring typical coming-of-age themes—family, home, and sexuality—Riot Lung culminates in the unfurling of a new relationship approached by the speaker with trepidation. For Your Own Good picks up after the beginning of a love affair, which quickly becomes abusive.

The author courageously tackles the neglected topic of violence in lesbian relationships, using her own experience as inspiration. The book’s speaker is direct, enumerating details both concrete and abstract, but never with ambiguity. Notably, the poem “The Disappearing Woman” reads as a kind of diagnostic manifesto on the theme, juxtaposing an “invisible” abuse with the typical image of domestic violence:

     With her new magic, she makes you
                 invisible.

     The women with black eyes
                 do not see you, in your bare

     sleeves, your tired, unmarked face.
                 The women with black eyes

     can say doorknob. Can say staircase
                  and fell down

This poem explores some of the stereotypical attributes of violence in heterosexual relationships, establishing a kind of foil for the speaker’s own experiences, and the unseen suffering in abusive lesbian relationships. 

Despite its difficult subject matter, For Your Own Good is more reserved in some ways than Riot Lung. Though Horlick maintains her ornate, almost baroque style, the speaker’s voice is less naive and overwrought. Indeed, there is something cool about the way she relates her abuse, suggesting the distance that comes with the passage of time. For example, she writes, “Now that I know what to call what / you did, come back here and I’ll do it right this time.” Still, the scenes are often difficult to read, teeming with unsettling details, as in the poem “Captivity”: “She names herself keeper, alpha. Grabs / your breasts to make you hiss for strangers. / You’re the mirror that makes her look skinny, the whip she cracks for show.”

What makes pieces like these bearable is the knowledge that, ultimately, Horlick’s story is one of survival. Through friends, poetry, and endurance, the speaker finds a way out, and even finds love again. As a narrative of transformation, For Your Own Good deftly maps the vicious “magic” of abuse and the relief that comes with healing, all in Horlick’s intimate, urgent voice. 

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