Last Week’s Reading: May 28 -June 3

Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg: As usual, I am late to the CanLit party, but let me be the umpteenth person to tell you that Birdie is very, very good. Birdie, a Cree woman, has traveled to British Columbia from her home (that’s simplifying things, I admit) in Alberta, working in a bakery and hoping, maybe, to meet Pat John, an actor from The Beachcombers (had to look that one up). Birdie goes into a dream state in which she processes her memories of abuse; soon, her Aunt Val and cousin Skinny Freda arrive to watch over her. The novel is unabashedly non-linear, and Ms. Lindberg weaves Cree language and stories through the narrative, making this one of the more unusual, affecting reading experiences I’ve had lately. For a better review from a Canadian perspective, check out Laura’s post. Highly recommended.

Sycamore, by Kathy Fagan: I admire Kathy Fagan’s poetry so much, and Sycamore is no exception. In it, Ms. Fagan considers the sycamore tree as a physical object and as a metaphor (for growth, for change, among other things) in poems about the end of a long marriage. Sycamore is the kind of book that I’ll return to again and again, though its complexities and delights make it difficult to express how much I enjoyed it in this brief overview. For a better sense of the collection, please have a look at The Cloudy House Q & A with Kathy Fagan.

Mr. Rochester, by Sarah Shoemaker: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea will always be the Jane Eyre-inspired novel against which all others are measured, though  Mr. Rochester is a fine addition to the category. If it didn’t, to my ear, quite capture the voice of the elusive and angry Rochester, it nonetheless is a noble effort, and Ms. Shoemaker plausibly fills in the gaps of his history. Subtly, the author shows us that Rochester is not so self-aware as Jane; nor is he particularly invested in righting the many wrongs he encounters in his travels. Recommended for Brontë fans looking for more of the gloomy Mr. R.

Lena, by Cassie Pruyn: This is a beautiful debut collection about the sweet-bitter nature of first love–longer review to come (sooner rather than later, I hope).

“lavishing honey light at her auburn feet”: George Elliott Clarke’s “Discourse on Pure Virtue”


I live in Massachusetts. Usually, the autumn is  annoyingly brief here, bookended by humid heat and frigid cold on either end, but this year it’s truly ridiculous: the temperature is supposed to hit 84 today.

Which is a roundabout way of explaining why I found this week’s poem, with its heady and yet unoppressive warmth, so appealing.

Naomi at Consumed by Ink has more than once recommended to me the poetry of George Elliott Clarke, who is currently serving as Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate, and while I despair at finding one of his collection at a bookstore near me (the poetry section at the bookstore closest to my house is anemic when it comes to Americans, let alone anyone else), I did find a few of his poems online.

This week I’m reading “Discourse on Pure Virtue.” It’s a response, in a way, to Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”; in Mr. Clarke’s poem, “All these pleasures will we prove” immediately recalls the famous “Come live with me and be my love / and we will all the pleasures prove” of Marlowe’s. However,  this is not a direct reply, as is Ralegh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” (you can read both of these poems here); instead, it’s more of a response, or a riff.

Marlowe’s poem is a seduction, wherein the speaker tries to woo the nymph with promises of pastoral pleasures. In “Discourse on Pure Virtue,” it is the speaker who is seduced by the beauty of “The brown girl, golden, sable-eyed.” Just look at all the words used to describe her and her features: exuberant, august, individualized, warm, light-dark. She’s “flowering yellow hibiscus”; her smile shows her “warm, sun-dyed, terracotta lips”; her sari is “lushly brocaded gold silk.”

I love the way the poem luxuriates in these radiant details; it’s a summoning of “virtue” completely antithetical to the way I think of the word visually (Pilgrim portraits, conduct books, grim New England winters). Similarly, “discourse” in the title suggests a certain Enlightenment-era orderly recitation of facts in service to an argument. Instead the poet gives us boundless joy.

What do you think of the poem? And what other poems are you reading this week?