Thursday, August 03, 2006

Susan Elmslie's I, Nadja, and Other Poems

I write

because poetry is to the body as energy is to mass; it lives
in me as in you, and perhaps
because we have little else to give one another, you and I
because history repeats with the cocooning of secrets

because I have loved and hidden it
in cycles sure as Mississippi floods:
stupendous litany of ampersands
it swells and washes and carries the house

and to find it again I must describe it
to you

Have you seen the shark's eye glint on my bone-handled knife,
the lime that bleeds May? (p 51)

It was in 1996 when I first read the poems of Montreal writer Susan Elmslie, from her award-winning chapbook When Your Body Takes to Trembling (Windsor ON: Cranberry Tree Press, 1996), entering into poems as clear and deliberate as cut glass. Since then, her writing has appeared in numerous places, including the anthologies In Fine Form: The Anthology of Canadian Form Poetry (Vancouver BC: Polestar, 2005), evergreen: six new poets (Windsor ON: Black Moss Press, 2003), YOU & YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS: NEW MONTREAL WRITING (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 2001), as well as a chapbook with above/ground press, I, Nadja (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2000), and finally in her first trade collection, I, Nadja, and Other Poems (London ON: Brick Books, 2006). Built in four separate sections, the title section of her new collection centres around André Breton's surrealist muse Nadja, writing the real woman that Breton himself never bothered to really know, and finally abandoned. As she writes in her "Dedication" at the beginning of the "I, Nadja" section [a longer version appears at]:
I have to wonder at the irony that Breton ended up with an alley named after him here. The general public might not know that his surrealist muse Nadja was actually confined behind these walls in March 1927 (when the buds on the magnolia trees, on the green outside the frame, were just splitting their seams)
before being moved to another hospital and, sometime later, to yet another nearer her family in Lille, where she died.

No street bears her real or adopted name. Until now, just a book, his. Which she likely never read.
(p 67)
Nadja and Breton aren't the only references made here; in sections titled "Feminine Rhyme," "History Repeats," "I, Nadja," "The Hard Disciplines" and "Equipment for Living," Elmslie writes of Marie Curie and George Sand, elements of Paris (unrelated to Nadja and Breton), various of the sciences in the fourth section, and a final section on more tangible things such as chairs, trench coats and apartments.

The New Apartment
for Wes, who moved us in, and made it fit for habitation

It is hungry for our love
and waiting to be coaxed back.

The last tenants' dog left
flaps of his coat
in every corner, the musty smell
of resentment at having to sleep
in the basement, and dust
kicked up by his paws
chasing the forty grey squirrels
in the park of his dreams
nosed into the floorboards
along with his drool.

We inherit, as well, the original
1920s kitchen cupboards, wood
porous as coral, and sour
with the work of hands,
with garlic and grease.
And between the bathroom and hallway, a sun well
choked with dirt from a potted plant
that split its girdle;
seasons of leaves
dropped like snotty hankies.

I'm grateful for the saving graces:
bleach, paint, and habituation.
The double-bassist who practices downstairs.
Another kind of devotion.
This winter we'll practice
huddling by the hearth, watching sparks
centipede up the chimney as the wind
takes another deep haul. Outside,

the houses fat as linebackers
put on shoulder pads, helmets of snow,
get ready for the big pile-up.
Under so many layers
we'll forget we were ever unborn
ever unhoused. (pp 129-30)

This is a large poetry collection, at over one hundred and forty pages, and find it interesting that poetry collections seem to be getting larger over the past few years. Most of the time it isn't necessary, and a matter of not enough edits, but I can't imagine a single thing to improve this first collection by Susan Elmslie; perhaps it's simply knowing how long the process of this book has taken, and knowing how long it might take before we see a second. Elmslie's poems are precise and deliberate, but still hold a passion, as open and unyielding as a Rochester to his subsequent Jane Eyre; and through the Nadja poems, a strain of passion turning slowly into grief. These poems hit hard at the heart first like a virus, spreading quickly into the other parts of the body.

I, Nadja

do solemnly swear, being of sound mind
and body, do swear, swear I
never loved you, you thief
of tongues, self-important arriviste
bastard. You entered me
like a café, proud of your mien, très artiste.
Already in that first moment I could see
the machines spinning in you,
the developer's eye that blurs
and distorts. So I lied to you.
I gave you something to work with,
your truth a cat's eye
narrowed to a slit. Too much light you said
scorches the casserole, was that it?
My scribbles dazzled, apparently.
But what you never cared to see, filaments
jutting out of me at the Perray-Vaucluse, those
would score your flesh.
I warn you, here, now, with my burning eyes
and my stained hands square on this table:
écoute André, je commence à faire entendre ma vérité. (p 69)

There is a muted spontaneity to Elmslie's poems, a flow that works both confidence and uncertainty, writing out the end of poems that twist when they need, and continue when they need, making many of these pieces better poems than even she might be aware of. In various poems, there is are apologies made, to fathers and mothers and already her new daughter; apologies made to everyone but her husband, Wes. This is a remarkable first collection from a poet many of us have been waiting on for years, and a book not easily absorbed as a whole, but poems that very quickly and immediately strike the reader in the softer places.

First Apology to My Daughter

I birthed you like an animal,
soft flanks rising with calm
deepening breaths, brown eyes indifferent
to the hands of well-meaning helpers.
After hours of baffled pushing
and an enfilade of sutures, I surrendered
you to the nursery, just
a couple of hours,
while my body sunk into the mattress
like a slug sinks back into the earth
after its encounter with a shovel.
I didn’t know the harried nurse
would think it best not to wake me
to feed you. You yearning
for your first milk
while I dozed
on some far off platform.
That you would tighten
the coil of your body trying to burst
the seam of your swaddling blanket, and cry
that tremulous muscular cry
and me out of earshot. Cry
long enough to give up on crying.
What darkness then, in the fluorescent hours
of the maternity ward while
I taught you the ferocity of hunger. (p 41)

1 comment:

alixandra said...

oh, awesome. Thanks for pointing her out.