A Bitter Mood of Clouds

Bitter moods of clouds
Vivian Hansen
Frontenac House, 72 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by 
Barbara Black

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
already, shrieking

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.


Glossolalia Cover
Marita Dachsel
Anvil Press, 93 pages, 2013, $18.00
Reviewed by 
Jennifer Zilm
There are many versions of the story,”says Eliza Roxcy Snow at the end of B.C. poet Marita Dachsel’s second trade collection (several poems of which appeared in Room 32:3). Snow is one of thirty-four wives of the 19th century prophet Joseph Smith who speaks through Dachsel in verse primarily characterized by short, lyrical and direct lines, yet punctuated by prose pieces, an erasure, and other innovative uses of page space. With such a myriad of voices it is inevitable that sometimes the voices do blur together and one senses this might be intentional, a part of the cacophony of tongues hinted at by the title. For the most part, however, Dachsel is to be commend-ed for conveying the distinctiveness of these voices though the aforementioned experiments with space and form and by a strong narrative imagination, which imbues plausibity to these women. Particularly striking are the voices of “Fanny Alger,” the Smiths’s maid who longs for the affection of Joseph Smith’s one legal wife Emma. Also striking is the voice of the middle-aged midwife “Patty Bartlett Sessions,” who regrets the role she has played “delivering” women into the polygamous lifestyle. There is a humour in both these poems that balances the individual women’s pathos that is often found throughout the book. 
The two “loudest” voices in the collection are that of Emma and of Eliza. These women took different paths within the early Mormon Church. After Smith’s assassination, Emma chose not to follow Smith’s successor Brigham Young to Utah and vociferously denied Smith’s polygamous activity. Snow, who was a poet, chose to move with the early Mormons and married Young (for time, not eternity—a distinction Dachsel explains in her notes). Both women are marked by their childbearing, or, in Eliza’s case, lack thereof. In a striking pas-sage early in the book Emma notes in an address to her husband: “You used to say I looked beautiful / pregnant … But my babies were buried / at a rate I considered laboring / squatted over a muddy hole.” 
Emma’s four poems are scattered at intervals throughout the book, and she is often a subject in poems of other wives. Eliza, whose voice closes the book, opens her testimony by noting that she “will never feel the ache / of filling breasts / heavy for release.” Eliza is the most nuanced of Dachsel’s voices. She is vocal in her sexual desire, refusing to be just a wife. Looking back on her life, she laments the squandered potential of the female saints, and recounts using her sexuality to advance feminist theological positions: “I told him / a father in heaven is a fine idea, / but don’t we need a mother too? Every man deserves at least one wife, / even God. / With his hand/ on my thigh / he agreed.” In the sequence, however, just as in the many of the poems, the possibilities for women’s advancement in the early move-ment are squashed as the women are inevitably played against each other. Emma’s menacing presence lingers throughout Eliza’s account, hinting at the former woman’s violence against the latter. The sexual and spiritual kin-ship between Joseph and Eliza is ultimately eclipsed by this rivalry, and it is the strife among sister-wives that closes the book.


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