Annick MacAskill

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. 

Currently on Newsstands

  • Room 41.2, Changing Language
    Edited by Kayi Wong

    In this issue:

    Manahil Bandukwala, Fang Bu, Allison Graves, Kadijah Guillaume, Ava Homa, Ashley Hynd, Amy LeBlanc, Vanessa Lent, Tasslyn Magnusson, Chloe Yelena Miller, Amy Oldfield, Alycia Pirmohamed, Mia Poirier, Victoria Prevot, Michelle Purchase, Jade Riordan, Ellie Sawatzky, Bren Simmers, Dahae Song, Anne Stone, Susie Taylor, Katherena Vermette, Kayi Wong, Hiba Zafran, Shellie Zhang

    .

Subscribe to Annick MacAskill