Review by Hilary Jacob
When a friend recently selected Wildflowers at my doorstep as a book club selection, I approached the task of reading the collection with two parts intrigue and one part trepidation. I was pleased to learn of a new female literary talent, but the title conjured up earnest verses penned in praise of majestic Canadian landscapes authored by nice (of course), patriotic folk. While I have nothing against praising our sublime landscape, I feared such verse might prove a bit, well, boring. If I commit to carving out sufficient time in a busy week to attend to an entire collection of poetry, I want the experience to be unique, memorable and moving. I crave challenging ideas and subject matter, innovative, impressive and surprising use of language; I want to feel drawn in as I would to any good book, to become engrossed in the world created by the author and to enjoy having visited this place. I was quite certain Wildflowers would not satisfy this lengthy list of requirements. In short, I was mistaken.
In her first published book, Marni Norwich keeps her writing spare and tight, the language pared down to pierce each target with the finest precision possible. The collection of 45 poems juxtaposes light and dark subjects, drawing the reader in expertly with wit and humour then turning sharply to address serious subjects. It is an impressive and delicate balance the artist maintains, a testament to her technical skills and sensitivity in employing her craft; she weaves light and soft textures of irreverence, wit and humour, alternating with weightier, coarser yarns and darker hues as she illustrates subjects including injustice, death, loneliness and loss. The result is a tapestry in which the light and the dark become blended and inseparable. One moment we are laughing, when suddenly the mood becomes serious. I found myself reading and rereading poems, not wanting to miss the subtleties, the nuances and the humour.
We are first led into the “fallen” world by Adam, in “The truth about banishment: His”. The tone of this poem is light and fun and Adam is portrayed as more optimistic than we would conventionally presume. Adam is a colloquial-speaking, modern-sounding, irreverent personality who wants you to know that he’s not a “smartass”. In reference to the infamous apple-eating-debacle, he informs us “the truth about banishment is it opened doors for us”.
Having been turned out of the Garden of Eden in the opening poem, it is fitting that we find ourselves in an uncertain place (We do not arrive). In the poem by the same name, the speaker laments “We are always saying Life is like this, but what do we know? After tens of thousands of years, we are still wondering who we are”. The poems in this grouping ruminate on a variety of difficult, eternally puzzling subjects such as the meaning of life, one’s state upon death and the burden of ego. The opening poem, This poem is a self-conscious and stilted spike of a work, each line kept to a mere few words in length. The tone is ironic and mocking as the speaker makes hyperbolic claims: among the amazing restorative abilities of “this poem” it boasts itself a cure for “loneliness, faithlessness and apathy”, “a magic elixir for a broken heart” and “a tonic for existential angst”. The closing lines ring serious and weighty, however. Conjuring Ulysses and his Odyssey, we are told “This poem is…your compass. Read it carefully and it will guide you home”. The reader must make a choice. Do we choose skepticism and scorn for artistic pretention, or is there a hidden meaning here, only accessible through faith and optimism?
The second grouping in the collection, Inheritance, is arguably the most affecting of the sections. The writer points to strong women of personal significance (for example, her grandmother), of historical significance (Anne Frank) and modern day activists (Betty Krawczak and Renee Boje) and highlights the optimism, faith and tenacity these women displayed in the face of incredible adversity. In Inheritance the speaker reminds herself “You think you are the first to experience displacement… Your great-grandmother crossed an ocean with little more than hope in her bags”. In Green Jade Necklace, of her grandmother the writer says “she knew how to spring hope from asphalt like wildflowers”. In the poignant poem Dear Anne Frank, the writer speaks directly to Anne, as to a sister or close friend, grieving for her “losses” and describing simple pleasures she wishes she had the possibility to show and to share. There is something almost childish in the tone of the poem and in the childishness, hopeful, that the actual act of writing such a letter might be useful, could actually alleviate suffering.
The third grouping I have been trying to read you this poem focuses on the act of writing and the need for connections through this traditionally solitary artistic process. Says the speaker in the poem of the same name, “I can’t do this on my own. I just need you to reach forward with the tentacles of your mind, touch these words and lead me home”. Themes of loss and dislocation are repeated in this section, as the author pays tribute to Po Seng, a Chinese immigrant and doctor turned poet, and Marcel, a 75 year old Flamenco teacher who arrived in Canada at 15, having lost his parents, siblings and other relatives in the death camps. Says the speaker: “Marcel, we’ve only just met, but I think I know you, an Ashkenazic Jew… igniting a stage”.
While poems in the previous sections generally allude to ethereal forces, energies and spirituality and prodded the reader to reevaluate archetypal human problems, the poems in the final 2 groupings, This body and All the crazy boys are more obvious, more corporal and generally lighter. The topics explored include the frustration of insomnia, scoliosis, recollections of an argument at the age of 5 and ex-boyfriends. However, the author shows respect for the body and the mysteries it holds. The body, referred to previously in Listen as a “misunderstood ally” “could teach me a thing or two” and “Would tell me a lot if only I would listen”. In Despite everything, especially my vegetarianism, we pinpoint what may be the most succinct example of the message in the Wildflowers collection. In reflecting on an egregious act of inconsideration by a former boyfriend, the speaker notes that through the eyes of the poet, she can appreciate the inconsiderate act for its artistic merit “the way I savour incongruity and the improbable contrast of many things”. The over-arching message in the collection appears to be that if we develop the skills and discipline to view the world with optimism and faith, to recognize our connectedness to each other and to utilize the poet’s technique of “savouring incongruity” we will be able to flourish despite life’s hard truths and adversity.
The closing poem, The truth about banishment: Hers gives Eve the last word. At first we laugh as Eve tells us in her rough way that it was “sass”, not temptation that motivated her to eat of the apple and further: “…the point being, I don’t like to feel I’m being messed with”. Having thus shrugged off the significance of her actions, in the closing lines, however, Eve becomes serious and admits that the apple, when held, seemed to hold “gravity” and actually gave her power to see the future and feel the “yearning love” of future generations. Thus the reader is given a choice: do we despair at the prospect of this perpetual cycle of life and death or are we filled with hope and optimism that the cycle of life and death is fuelled by love.
Throughout the collection, the author directs our attention to themes and motifs repeatedly, and eventually a pattern emerges for the reader. The poet guides our attention to a few seemingly random wildflowers at our doorstep; if we look further we realize identical flowers blanket the landscape. Experiences that befall each of us may seem intensely personal, but if we look further we might recognize, and find solace in, the inter-connectedness between ourselves, the world and unseen natural forces.
Wildflowers at my Doorstep is available at Israel’s Judaica.