Thursday, November 23, 2023

Sandra Ridley, Vixen


Clover and laurel and thistle
velvet and sumac
muskroot and sundew and baneberry
crocus and cherrychoke
eyebright and bindweed
moonseed and coltsfoot
panic grass and bloodroot and hyssop
loosestrife and boneset
goldenseal and sedge and lady fern
devil’s bit and daisy and aster
violet and ivy—every leaf will wither.


You will suffer the same.

For her fifth full-length poetry title, Vixen (Toronto ON: Book*Hug Press, 2023), Ottawa poet and editor Sandra Ridley blends medieval language around women, foxes and the fox hunt alongside ecological collapse, intimate partner violence and stalking into a book-length lyric that swirls around and across first-person fable, chance encounter and an ever-present brutality. Following her collections Fallout (Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2009) [see my review of such here], Post-Apothecary (Toronto ON: Pedlar Press, 2011) [see my review of such here], The Counting House (BookThug, 2013) [see my review of such here] and the Griffin Prize-shortlisted Silvija (BookThug, 2016) [see my review of such here], the language of Vixen is visceral, lyric and loaded with compassion and violence, offering both a languid beauty and an underlying urgency. “If he has a love for such,” she writes, as part of the second poem-section, “or if loathing did not prevent him. // A curse shall be in his mouth as sweet as honey as it was in our mouths, our mouths as / sweet as honey. Revulsive as a flux of foxbane, as offal—and he will seem a lostling. // He came for blood and it will cover him.”

Set in six extended poem-sections—“THICKET,” “TWITCHCRAFT,” “THE SEASON OF THE HAUNT,” “THE BEASTS OF SIMPLE CHACE,” “TORCHLIGHT” and “STRICKEN”—Ridley’s poems are comparable to some of the work of Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy for their shared use of medieval language, weaving vintage language and consideration across book-length structures into a way through to speak to something highly contemporary. As such, Vixen’s acknowledgments offer a wealth of medieval sources on hunting, and language on and around foxes and against women, much of which blends the two. A line she incorporates from Robert Burton (1621), for example: “She is a foole, a nasty queane, a slut, a fixin, a scolde [.]” From Francis Quarles (1644), she borrows: “She’s a pestilent vixen when she’s angry, and as proud as Lucifer [.]” Or, as she writes as part of the third section:

Find her in pasture till all pastures fail her like hawthorns. She will run well and fly.

She slips out of the forest and when compelled she crosses the open country. When she runs, she makes few turns. When she does turn to bay, she will run upon us and menace and strongly groan. And for all the strokes or wounds that we can do to her, while she can defend herself, she defends herself without complaint.

She will spare for nothing.

Take leave of your haunt and hunt her down—

Till nigh she be overcome.

There is something of the use of such language to allow a deeper examination into dark paths that seem unrelenting, and, as the back cover offers, “compels us to examine the nature of empathy, what it means to be a compassionate witness, and what happens to us when brutality is so ever-present that we become numb.” Her lines through each section, each individual poem-suite that accumulates into this full-length lyric suite, extend with such courage, grace and connective tissue as to be by themselves book-length. Saskatchewan born-and-raised Ridley has always worked with the structure of the long poem, and this collection further highlights an ongoing attention to lyric and structure, offering not a book but a poem, book-length; one that extends across a landscape that includes works by Sylvia Legris, Monty Reid, Andrew Suknaski and Robert Kroetsch, among so many others, reaching to see just how far that lyric landscape might travel. And yet, her poems also give the sense of a lyric folded over and across itself, lines that collect and impact upon each other from a multitude of directions and into a singular, polyphonic voice. This is a stunning collection, and deserves to be win every award. Approach with caution, please. Or, as she writes as part of the third poem-section:

Look not in the eyes of any creature. The same creature runs with different names: wolf, vixen, vermin, heathen, honey, harlot, bitch.

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