37.2

A Bitter Mood of Clouds

Bitter moods of clouds
By 
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.

Dark Water Songs

By 
Mary Lou Soutar-Hynes
Inanna Publications and Education Inc., 91 pages, $18.95
Reviewed by 
Emily Milliken

The poems in Dark Water Songs touch on the political, the natural, the concrete, and the abstract. From the streets of Toronto to tropical islands, “From Perth to Edinburgh by Rail” (21) Soutar-Hynes takes us through urban and rural landscapes following the “crimson certainty” (61) of her heart’s inclinations.

The collection is divided into four sections: “In the Manner of Tides,” “Close to Home,” “Slippery,” and “Other Gravities.” Not surprisingly, water—the sea, the tides, the river, the lake—figures prominently in the work, as does the stuff of water—islands, salt, sand, and lighthouses. This theme runs so strongly through the first two sections that even a poem like “Implicated” (16), which makes no mention of water and is political in tone, brought to mind an aging leader of a small island nation.

This theme loses strength by the sections “Slippery” and “Other Gravities.” Sailboats and anchors still pop up, but as a reader, I was becoming more aware of and more interested in the glimpses of the poet’s life seen almost as “clusters of intimacy” (75) in the poems.

Narratives are partially told but mostly obscured. “Discernment” (73) is one example, where Soutar-Hynes uses landing a plane in fog as a metaphor for perspective. Near the end of the piece, a third person appears in parenthesis: “Beautiful, she said of your heart’s / steady beat: I saved you / a picture.” This dialogue changes the “pockets of turbulence preferable to disaster” earlier in the poem to a comment on this relationship. But that’s all we really get of it.

“The Weight of Storms” (40) beautifully depicts the frozen existence of deep winter in Ontario: “No birds at the feeder / no squirrels foraging / through lilacs frozen antlers.” The poet uses this environment as a metaphor for the tone set by argument between intimates. “We play our separate / hands from separate rooms—/ lost solitudes—awaiting ploughs / to pry us free.” These snippets appear throughout the book, scattered between abstract meditations like “Perhaps” (52) and observations of the natural and constructed world.

Soutar-Hynes’s use of space, line-breaks, and stanza breaks lends many poems in the collection not only the poet’s voice—I can hear her pauses, hear how she would likely read aloud—but a concrete quality. I truly hope that the island-like shapes formed by poems like “Along Rosedale Valley Road” (56) depict archipelagos found in some old atlas.

As I read Dark Water Songs, I was increasingly aware of the poet’s consciousness, or the “brisk salt of / [her] waking thought” (31) and the effect left me curious about her, her work, and her life.

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