Recommended Reading: Lena, by Cassie Pruyn

Lena, Cassie Pruyn’s debut collection, is a tender and fierce evocation of love and painful loss.

Lena was the poet’s first love; after their relationship ended, Lena was diagnosed with cancer and later died. In these poems, Ms. Pruyn offers readers both an unabashedly sensual portrait of first love and an elegy for Lena. The book is non-linear, threading together the poet’s complicated, overlapping emotions regarding Lena: affection, desire, frustration that their relationship couldn’t be lived openly, relief when it ended, grief in the face of her illness and death.

I admired this collection’s craftsmanship (particularly Ms. Pruyn’s facility with rhymes and stanza breaks), but even more so its wrenching honesty, from the innocent eroticism of “Lena’s Summer House in Rockport” (“and Lena      all skin / among scattered pillows”) to the yearning in “The House on Tator Hill” (“I didn’t belong in that house, or in any of its portraits / but we tried to make a home of its four-poster bed”), the guilt in “Dive,” and the incredulity in “Self-Interrogation.” In this poem, “Where is her body?” is repeated, a haunting refrain, in the poem’s first section, which imagines the body after death, and in the second, in which the speaker recalls the beloved’s body in life.

“Lena, No One Knew,” “Elegy for a Room,” and “Twenty Minutes at the Clam Shack,” and “In the Vineyard” (“she slants against the wind in her peacoat”) are some other favorites from this beautiful book, which I’m happy to recommend.

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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).