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.

If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You

By 
Adèle Barclay
Nightwood Editions, 96 pages, $18.95
2016
Reviewed by 
Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt

“Where are our time machines?” asks the narrator in “Dear Sara I,” the first poem of Adèle Barclay’s debut collection, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You. Pulsing with an old-world, occult feel, Barclay’s poetry draws the reader back in time with its tarot readers, bearded ladies, riding caps, griffins, and witchery. Alcohol, cigarettes, and erotic desire lend a theatrical, 1920s-era noir feel to the reading.

Yet Barclay’s poems are both contemporary and relevant. Millennial anxieties are a common thread (“I’m so tired / I can’t even curate / a good life” or “our stupid hands / scratching at glass screens”), as is the desire for digital-era connection (“I watched the new Grimes video / hoping to find you in feathers”). The wry, often humorous voice of the narrator feels intimate and familiar, like that of the friend you’re in a semi-permanent state of physical separation with but still speak to every day, by “dial-up telepathy,” text messages, and handwritten letters. But here, the longing is also carnal, marked by blood, bruises, blisters, and body heat. If I Were in a Cage wonders aloud whether closeness is sustainable from afar. 

A variety of expertly rendered settings reinforce this question. Within the first two poems, Barclay moves from the “slick jaws / of Brooklyn” to small-town Ontario, where “a grunge trio’s name / references Alice Munro.” In Montréal, “darkness in winter is anyone’s game,” while the Pacific Northwest is all “witchery, rain, chanterelles, and moss.” “I have destinations / to tally” writes Barclay, and whether it’s San Bernardino, Paris, Michigan, or rural Alberta, her deftly observed details safeguard the reader’s perception of each place. 

“There’s language / and then there’s language” claims the narrator in “Grammar by the Minute,” and Barclay’s language is both keen and vivid (“The faucet / is a siren, the pipes freeze a rusted melody”), while sensations are contorted (“I’ve / turned Saturn / in my mouth / like an olive pit”) to defy our expectations. At times, it feels like Barclay is a magician pulling back the curtains of perception and memory to reveal something more enduring. The opening poem is one of six Dear Sara’s interspersed throughout this collection, and by “Dear Sara VI,” the final poem, time has passed and place names have changed, but it’s love that appears to endure. In its exploration of intimacy, If I Were in a Cage is at its most reverent and mystical. 

Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt’s fiction has recently appeared in (parenthetical), Matrix, Cosmonaut’s Avenue, and Room’s Canadian Gothic issue (39.3). She lives in Montréal, where she is at work on her first novel. Visit her at carlyrosalie.com or follow her on Twitter @carlyrosalie.

Force Field

If I think about what I’m doing, I’ll never get off the plane. After all, it’s ridiculous to believe a computer program can predict two strangers will develop a meaningful relationship. It’s even more ridiculous to test that prediction by flying halfway across the country after a few dozen hours on Skype.

My Name is a Typo

You know you’re ethnic as hell when your own smart devices immediately autocorrect your Korean name. Apparently, according to Apple, Jiyoon is incorrect. Instead, their devices offer a plethora of alternatives; the most notable being Jason, June, Jouoom (this one remains the most mysterious of the bunch), and even Jamie.

Fainting Couch Feminists Episode 10: Alea Rae Clark: The Power of Sadness, Androgyny, and Art Rock

This episode features Alea Rae Clark, a singer, lyricist, and guitarist in the band Douse. Alea chats with Mica about why they transitioned away from their image as "front-woman" and how identifying as non-binary has helped Douse become more unified as a band. Alea and Mica also discuss whether sadness is necessary to create art, whether lyric-writing robots are a useful tool or a disgrace to humanity and the songwriting process, and what, exactly, is "art rock"?

An Interview with Vivek Shraya, Room's 2018 Poetry Judge

An Interview with Vivek Shraya, Room's 2018 Poetry Judge

Vivek Shraya is an artist. Fluent in many mediums including music and the written word, Shraya is also the author of even this page is white, She of the Mountains and her upcoming book I’m Afraid of Men. Shraya released her album Part-Time Woman in 2017 and is one half of the music duo Too Attached, who blew the roof off Room Magazine’s Growing Room 2018 Festival Launch Party earlier this year. I had the pleasure of meeting the powerhouse that is Vivek Shraya at that launch party and jumped at the chance to speak with her again.

Roping It In

“The calm lunatic—now that is something to aspire to.”—Mary Ruefle, “On Fear”

I learned to skip this year. I use a heavy, knotted rope that thwacks the ground and burns my shoulders and whips my bare toes raw when I stumble. In the early days I’d walk around with welts on my forearms, too, but the self-flagellation has waned with practice. I’ve learned to tread water, to let my feet track familiar patterns—forward and back, side to side, in and out, one to the other—freeing my mind up to notice things.

Well, “freeing” might be an overstatement. 

Fainting Couch Feminists Episode 9: Alba Sotorra: How an All-Female Battalion is Revolutionizing Syria

This episode features an interview with Spanish filmmaker and documentarian Alba Sotorra. Alba's latest film, Commander Arian, follows the title character and her journey alongside the Women's Protection Unit in Syria (the YPJ)—an all-female militia fighting to liberate the city of Kobane from ISIS. Alba chats with Mica about how these women are fighting for their right to exist, how they earn freedom on the frontlines, and why it's so important to solidarize with Syrian women. As Alba says, their fight is our fight, too.

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