Poetry Review by Tanya Lester
Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst's Apologetic for Joy

Jessica Hiemstra van-der Horst, Apologetic for Joy (Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2011). Paperbound, 117 pp., $17.95.Apologetic for Joy

Reading Apologetic for Joy was, for me, like peeling an orange on a hot day and greedily biting into its juicy flesh. Wanting more, I eagerly turned each page to delight in the next surprise.

Hiemstra-van der Horst is not a stranger to pain, nor insensitive toward the pain of others, but she cannot resist returning to a joyful place in her poetry. When the poet turns to writing about grievous experiences, it is understandable how the book got its title. Apologetic for Joy is presented in seven parts, inviting the reader in with freehand drawings by the poet (who is also a visual artist) at the beginning of each section, which frequently leads into a different country where she has visited or lived. Often it is as if the poet delights in random images tossed into her consciousness. In “Anatomy for the Artist (Standing Posture, Study I),” she writes “... an orange / rolling across the floor, the way you peeled / that artichoke, me, starting with my mouth.” In “Yes, Love” she toys with putting more order into her poetry: “When you’re asleep, I dream / a diagram, a and b and c.” She puts hair and a stray eyelash into the ”a” part, her lover’s foot in the ”b” section, and “how it is to sleep in the curves / of you” in the ”c.” It is appreciated that she does not force her poetry too tightly into structure.

Apologetic for Joy is a pleasure to read because the poetry remains as artfully loose as the drawings. Many of the poems are confessional. “I can’t believe / I told you I want to own you,” she writes in “Anatomy for the Artist (Light, Study III).” In “Georgia’s Recipes Somehow,” she admits to hiding Georgia’s Kitchen (probably in reference to Margaret Wood’s A Painter’s Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O’Keeffe) in her cupboard so she can satisfy her guilty pleasure of gazing at pictures of the famous artist’s apron and pantry door.

Much of Hiemstra-van der Horst’s poetry is spiked with humour and wit. In “We were both wrong, or maybe it’s a spelling mistake,” she writes of her discovery that the place buses stop to pick up passengers in a South African community is called a bus-rank; the joke being “is one bus better than another?” The poet displays a sombre side when death haunts her poems. In one, a South African friend phones to tell of her husband’s death. In “An Apologetic to Cockroaches from the Future,” partly about a boy the poet witnesses in his near-death experience from a spider’s bite, she writes “a child can vindicate us. He proves how close to holiness we are / when we are frightened.” This holiness seems to permeate poems like “Oma rode a bicycle for four years in a room of mattresses,” in which the poet is inspired to declare the “heart is where we store honey and purpose. It is / a house balanced on song and a bicycle, a place for bees to touch down / and make pleasure, or whatever / it is they do.” Mingling in the grief is the joy of celebrating Oma’s life. This wonderful concoction of holy grief and joy, peppered with humour, spills over into three poems, including a long one called “Excerpts from Gerald, God and the Chickens,” where the poet presents the reader with the way a schizophrenic thinks. From his point of view, “God slips in through the window, / but this Sunday he tells Gerald he’s weary of church. / The hymns are lovely, he says, but I’m tired / of sermons, crusades…It’s only the memory of love, he says, / there’s nothing left to believe. Isaiah made promises / I couldn’t keep, prayers reduced to words.”

Apologetic for Joy is a collection of poems on subjects most poets would never consider writing about, at least not in the tone and style that Hiemstra-van der Horst employs. It is literary and a page-turner at the same time.

—Tanya Lester

As in The Malahat Review, 178, Spring 2012, 88-91