MacAskill’s musings on grief mine myths
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In her third collection, Shadow Blight (Gaspereau Press, 64 pages, $19), Halifax writer Annick MacAskill uses myths of female transformation, notably Ovid’s account of Niobe’s transformation to stone in grieving over the deaths of her children, as a means for the speaker of the collection to think through her own grief over her miscarriage.
MacAskill’s resonant use of image and language in both accounts of grief, the mythical and the modern, establishes a plane on which the stories refract one another. In the first poem, Swimming Upwards, the long vowel sounds of ghost, boat, snow, tomatoes, coral, and hosts gradually shorten until the poem ends “one silver week, its arms outstretched —”. Not only do the vowels close, but the poem ends here, on an em-dash, an uncertain abyss.
The image of Niobe, of her grief-stricken transformation, haunts these poems as an open possibility: “Something about how time can do nothing to erase a woman’s sorrow// Or only exaggerates that sorrow/ […]/ Thanks to the poets & their stories about a mountain in Turkey the profile of Niobe’s sorrow is carried through the centuries a bug entombed in tree resin.”
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“This is one part of the history of a girl’s mind,” writes Lisa Robertson in her latest collection, Boat (Coach House Books, 176 pages, $22). In this collection, which gathers eight long poems, Robertson revisits her “quotidian notebooks” to write — and, in her inimitable way, to unsettle — her intellectual biography: “Say the mind is not a point of origin, but a skin carrying sensation into the midst of objects.”
While Robertson writes that “philosophy is collapsing before our eyes,” Boat is profoundly philosophical. Not only are the writers she indexes — from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Charles Baudelaire to Simone Weil to Giorgio Agamben and beyond — occupied with the matter of thinking and meaning, Robertson concerns herself with interrupting familiar structures of thought.
She attends to these in a way that jars their context and the ideologies they construct: “I wanted narrative to be/ The proportion in her hair/ Not a statement of the type ‘I am choking’/ As an authorizing system// Compared to the encoded unbelievability of women.”
In the opening poem, Robertson bifurcates the page vertically down its centre: ” ‘The sentence pours language/ back into th e universe.’/ I think t his is so/ and if the se ntence pours/ it pours in a direction.” Language, thus, is made strange, which then calls into question the thoughts that flow from that language.
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Mari-Lou Rowley’s latest collection, Catastrophe Theories (Anvil Press, 96 pages, $18), gathers the languages and methods of mathematics, philosophy, science and places them in relation to dreams, histories and fables.
In Ode to Alan Turing, Rowley opens with “coriander, turmeric, cinnamon/ what they brought back from that dark place,” connecting the disastrous withdrawal from India to the unjust choice — prison or chemical castration — imposed on Alan Turing for his homosexuality.
The poem proceeds to twist and test logics and images, from a list of queer-coded signs placed between Turing’s own account of the behaviour/state of mind of the computer, to a syllogism — “Turing believes that machines think./ Turing lies with men./ Therefore machines do not think” — that precedes an indirect appeal to curiosity: “Suppose someone is listening,” she concludes.
Poised between “[r]ejoice or regret,” Rowley places equations, historical and current events into allusive, metaphorical forms, and thereby she establishes a poetic space in oracular relation to an increasingly chaotic world: “The consequence of knowledge is danger;/ the consequence of truth is not beauty,” she writes in the culminating long poems Hypatia’s Lament/ Markov’s Echlogue, which she then algorhymically transposes to “consequence not knowledge// beauty needs/ consequence/ a can of/ white emergence.”
Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.