Poetry Review by Jamie Dopp

Collected Poems of Bronwen Wallace, edited by Carolyn Smart (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen's, 2020).
Cloth, 392 pp., $39.95.

Collected Poems of Bronwen Wallace, edited by Carolyn SmartBronwen Wallace died in 1989, at the age of forty‐four, after a nine-year career in which she published four collections of poetry. After her death, a fifth collection of poems, a volume of short stories, and a collection of essays were published. This relatively small body of work belies her outsized presence on the 1980s’ Canadian literary scene. As Carolyn Smart writes in the introduction to this Collected Poems, Wallace was connected to a large network of other writers, readers, activists, and members of the community. When she was dying (of mouth cancer) there was a “wicker basket next to her bed filled to overflowing with cards and letters from people most of her caregiving group had never heard of.” Seven hundred people attended her funeral.

Thirty years later, Wallace’s personal network has faded, but her work—particularly her poetry—lives on. The persistence of the poetry has to do with what made it so distinctive in the 1980s: during the heyday of postmodernism and poststructuralism, Wallace wrote narrative poems in a conversational voice inspired by “the flat, everyday speech of the rural and working‐class southern Ontario” where she grew up. Her style generated controversy (as her correspondence with Erin Mouré, published in 1993 as Two Women Talking, attests), but also won her a loyal following and a lasting influence.

A Collected Poems of Bronwen Wallace, then, is overdue. This one has everything that a lover of Wallace’s work or a scholar might desire. The complete texts of the five published collections are accompanied by eleven unpublished early poems, a bibliography of works by and about Wallace, annotations, and an index of titles. Smart’s introduction combines a personal account of Wallace with insightful critical observations. And the volume itself is beautiful. The poems are set with ample white space around them, and the red‐white‐and‐black bindings and dust jacket have an elegant simplicity that seems in keeping with Wallace’s work.

The volume illustrates the formal evolution of Wallace’s style. The first two books, Marrying into the Family and Signs of the Former Tenant, are in an open form, unpunctuated style reminiscent of the later Al Purdy. Wallace explained Purdy’s influence on her early work in her essay “Lilacs in May: A Tribute to Al Purdy.” Discovering Purdy, she wrote, was like arriving “in my own country, with … a language I could get my tongue around filling my mouth.” By Common Magic and The Stubborn Particulars of Grace, the poems are fully punctuated, with little deviation from the straight left margin. This later style reflects Wallace’s insistence on using the kind of “straightforward, conversational language” she has heard in women’s stories. Read aloud, the poems sound like a series of complete (if sometimes loopy) sentences, of the kind a person might use to tell a friend a story.

Wallace’s last collection, Keep That Candle Burning Bright: Poems for Emmylou Harris, consists of prose poems, except for the concluding “Miracles.” During the last couple of years of her life, Wallace also wrote stories, which she describes in “Why I Don’t (Always) Write Stories” as a further extension of the “somewhat collective” voice of her narrative poems. The form of Keep That Candle mirrors this interest. It also underlines a key theme, which is that the poems are for all the things she (and we) cannot do—which includes singing in a voice as beautiful as Emmylou Harris’s. The anti‐poetic look of a poem in prose is like the “off‐key,” “tuneless wonder” of “our failings held out, at last, to each other.”

Despite the formal evolution, Wallace was consistent in her poetic concerns. One of the things that struck me was how early the words “stubborn,” “particular,” and “grace” appear—and how often they reappear up to the title The Stubborn Particulars of Grace and beyond. Smart emphasizes how Wallace’s work stresses the “luminescent details of the particular, and the sense of the spiritual within all things.” This stress is visible throughout.

The word “stubborn” is particularly evocative. As part of her embrace of the “flat, everyday speech” of her background, Wallace tends toward words from the “lower” end of the linguistic register. Her political poems celebrate not the “resistance” in “everyday” culture but its “stubbornness.” “Stubbornness” also captures the unyielding quality of the material world, which, in turn, relates to the limitations of the human body (our material form). The stubbornness of these particulars limits us, but also makes possible our experience of grace, a doubleness captured in the epigraph from Flannery O’Connor that begins The Stubborn Particulars: “Possibility and limitation mean about the same thing.”

“Stubborn” also contains a sly comment, I think, about Wallace’s status as a poet. Despite containing some of the most memorable poems written in the 1980s, none of Wallace’s books received even a nomination for a Governor General’s Award. Yet she persisted; and her work, off‐key and radiant, persists. Wallace wrote a number of fine poems about her own process but, for me, the one that most captures her spirit is “Koko,” in which the mocked and disbelieved talking gorilla insists on her own worth. This poem, not coincidentally, also contains one of the most powerful images of “stubbornness”: “Kinda like the swings in the park / across from here, how they always / squeak, day in, day out …. [Some] things are like that, / stubborn as hell, no matter how much / you make an hour or what kind of government / you get.”

Koko insists that she is a “Fine animal gorilla.” Bronwen Wallace was a “Fine poet human”—as her legacy, including this book, attests.


—Jamie Dopp

As in The Malahat Review, 214, spring 2021