Which of us…has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhyme…supple…rugged…? –Baudelaire
for Maureen Whyte
Once in a blue moon, or in a full moon with auras, you come upon a book of poetry that changes how you look on poetry. Such is the case in my delayed encounter with Edmonton poet Shawna Lemay’s Asking.
The book was published in 2014 by Maureen Whyte at Seraphim Editions who also published my Lightness and Soul: Musings on Eight Jewish Writers in 2011. Maureen is a beautiful lady of letters who has recently retired after nearly 25 years of service to readers across Canada. Asking has been on my to-read list for a number of years and only now am I trying to do it justice.
Lemay writes “poem-essays,” a form that Phil Hall explored in Killdeer, a form that combines the quick insight of poetry with the power of meditative thought. She moves for the most part in sentences, but sentences concentrated and distilled—“music at the heart of thinking” in Fred Wah’s arresting phrase. Call the form poetic thinking, if you like. And what Lemay poetically thinks about are “paintings, ekphrasis, beauty, and deep looking.” She leaps, connects, enraptures.
She pinches her title from a keyword in Phyllis Webb’s lines:
Listen. If I have known beauty
let’s say I came to it
She openly confesses: “I make it a point to read or make or attempt to write something beautiful every day.” Asking is full of beauty and light. “The rejection of beauty troubles me,” she writes. “How people hold themselves quite intentionally from the experience of beauty. A withholding of the self.”
Lemay sees beauty in paintings, and in how artists paint: “…Jackson Pollock dripping paint onto a canvas always makes me feel like moving my arms. If you just concentrate on his arms you might start to think of birds, wingspans, gliding, hunting, drifting.”
She ingests the beauty around her as in her first seeing of Girl with the Pearl Earring: “…that light entered my heart. Also, a lightness, but more like a sharp and real shard of buttery light.”
Her mind moves swiftly in long meditative lines, making unusual and striking connections between things that seem unrelated. “Have you ever made a roux?” she asks and tells us it’s “the mother sauce in French cooking. Butter and flour in equal measures. You stir and stir until it turns the colour you’re after.” And the line she imagines is “like a roux, something that emerges from prolonged stirring and mixing and is very simple.” And that is what her writing is: stirred and mixed and very simple. And, yes, beautiful. The beauty is in the depth of her vision.
Her mind ranges over a wide terrain and like any good butterfly or hummingbird alights on any bloom worth drinking from. In “Calm” she notices that different languages have different ways of describing “still life” paintings. French says “nature morte” (dead nature), Italian says “vita silente” (silent life) and Japanese says “calm things.”
In “Calm,” she constructs as if offhandedly a beautiful list:
Small towers of grey flat stones…
Early evening snow.
Breathing patterns of books overflowing the shelf.
Light through golden leaves.
Stone bowls filled with lovely things, blossoms, leaves.
Clearly, she reads broadly and deeply and enjoys quoting from other writers whom she admires. I thought I knew D.H. Lawrence and Leonard Cohen reasonably well, but these quotations seem strange and new to me:
“The living self has one purpose only; to come into its own fullness of being as a tree comes into full blossom, or a bird into spring beauty, or a tiger into lustre” –Lawrence.
“Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash” –Cohen.
Sometimes when Lemay speaks I’m not sure if she is speaking to me the reader or to herself the writer or to both at the same time. “When you’re writing poetry, it’s good to think of Sappho and her brilliant shards. To imagine, as Rachel Blau Duplessis has said, that only a smudged line or creased fragment might survive. So write every line as if it is that fragment.”
There are many lines in Lemay that have the signature of permanence, including this playful line:
“My desire to be intellectually sophisticated and elegant is nearly equal to my desire to be naïve and wild.” Sophisticated naivety? Elegant wildness?
Lemay gives the impression that she’s seeing the world for the first time after decades of deep reading and deep thinking, finding just the right words to report on her discoveries.
*Shawna Lemay, Asking, Seraphim Editions, 2014.