Poetry Reviews by Donna Kane

Lynda Monahan, Verge (Oakville: Guernica, 2015). Paperbound, 110 pp., $20.

Deanna Young, House Dreams (London: Brick, 2015). Paperbound, 108 pp., $20.

VergeIn Lynda Monahan’s third collection of poetry, a fox serves as the narrator’s spirit animal, its wiser voice guiding her through her past and out “the other side.” Each of the ten sections of the book begins with a verse in the spirit fox voice followed by poems that recount the narrator’s losses and changes. The device of the Verge prologues is lovely and these introductions, which I think make up the strongest poems in the book, serve as a gentle reprieve to the much more visceral, cathartic poems that follow. The use of these two varying styles often raised the question of why we read poetry. The question is inherent in every poem I read, but it is one that rarely articulates itself because, in the best poems, the answer is self-evident—the language is inventive; the narrative is thought provoking; the author’s use of image, rhythm, and thought are giving rise to something greater than the words on the page.

In some of Monahan’s poems, the answer does, indeed, come on its own. In “Verge 5,” Monahan captures the longing for a more settled self:

you came to me
curious about this woman
wandering your forest
with her bucket of blueberries

a snap of twig
and I looked up
surprised to see you there

and you were a frenzy of beauty
then suddenly gone
but in that one bright instant
we recognized ourselves
we knew each other’s names …

In what could be seen as a companion poem, this time in the voice of the less-resolved self, Monahan writes, “walking the trail to the trout pond / one early April evening / I come across a young doe / grazing the new grass / she lifts her head to gaze at me / … the birds the wind / have gone suddenly still / as if everything stops for her / … she moves across my path / with a slow elegance / then she is gone and I am left / with this small longing.” Some of Monahan’s poems, however, remain so personal they seem to exclude the reader. And because the more personal poems don’t really explore beyond a specific experience, some endings seem to fall a bit hard. An example is “Photograph,” in which Monahan’s final lines are as follows: “in an old album on a closet shelf / they will always be this way / she will hold her brother’s hand forever / as if she won’t ever have to let him go.” What often saves confessional poems is an element of surprise, the narrator revealing thoughts that are unpredictable to the reader. I found myself wishing that Monahan had explored this opportunity more, as with “four generations,” in which she says, “fists on her hips / grandmother demands / we pose for this photo / dad glares into the camera / arms crossed / next to him I sit stiff backed // only my small son / who knows what is expected of him / grins.” I wondered if the poem might have been stronger if the final line had turned on the reader, perhaps with something as simple as “who does not yet know what is expected of him ….” Nevertheless, Verge is a book that can be admired for its honesty, its heartfelt emotions, and the reassuring wisdom of the spirit fox.

House DreamsDeanna Young, who has also published her third collection of poetry, House Dreams, seems to sum up what it is that keeps us reading. In her poem “Visions,” she writes, “A friend / told me once how it works. It’s the current under / you’re meant to feel. The flash of heat on your face / just enough to scare you. They’re snapshots of possibility, / like gentle warnings from a relative who loves you.” Young shows us, poem after poem, how this happens. From the wonderful introductory piece in which the narrator is a passenger on a plane, Young sets the vantage point and tone for many of the visions and dreams that follow. In her poems, we recognize our innermost fears. We feel the “flash of heat” on our face as with “The Humanitarians” which ends with the line, “The most frightening thing / is never knowing / what someone else is going to say.”

Young’s rhythm and rhymes are subtle, her words carefully crafted to seem plain spoken and effortless, giving space to the larger concerns of the poems: a reminder that dreams are no less real than memories and are, in many ways, the same, that in every act there is a sense of alienation, of having to save the world on one’s own terms—whether we are saving a child, a husband, or a pheasant. While the book moves from place to place, with sections such as “The City,” “Westmoorings” and “The Valley,” a sense of dis-ease and aloneness attends both narrator and reader. In “The City from Above,” Young writes, “Our true fears / are unspeakable,” then follows the phrase with details made more powerful in their commonness: “My watch on the dresser, / ticking. A husband on a Sunday morning saying, // See you in a few hours.” In “The Gate,” Young uses surprising leaps of images to encapsulate the fear of isolation as a privileged person in a foreign country: “ – a tall rum punch, snails the size of tennis balls … Fat queens in trailing gowns … arm the system and count the beeps until we’re safe … beady eye of the panic button.”

Young’s poems, whether in their imaginative leaps or in their depictions of life as fraught with every imaginable terror and misjudgment, always ring true.

—Donna Kane

As in The Malahat Review, 192, Autumn 2015, 87-90