Foreign Homes by Joan Crate
Reviewed by Jana Prikryl (Quill and Quire, February, 2002)
Joan Crate published her first poetry book a dozen years ago, and the deftness of this second appearance is enough to recommend a similar gestation period to today’s crop of grant-starved, print-hungry poets. Without investing too much in the cliché, Foreign Homes shows that in 12 years Crate had time to not only experience life and write about it, but to experience, digest, write, and rewrite it.
Divided into three sections, the book is thematically fastened by its central portion, a series of 12 elegiac verses about Shawnadithit, the last member of the Boethuks of Newfoundland. Shawnadithit died of tuberculosis in 1829, and Crate applies a heady mixture of sympathy and rage to her resurrection (calling to mind American poet John Berryman’s revival, in 1953, of Anne Bradstreet in his own “Homage” to a neglected heroine).
Beginning with a Shakespearean sonnet, the 12 poems depict Shawnadithit’s life in sharply imagined scenes. In some of the pieces, Shawnadithit’s own voice takes charge, the clipped syntax reflecting her desperation. Concluding a poem about her attempts to sketch the past for her European captors, Shawnadithit reflects that “they dream in frustrated inks –/New-found-land the title,/a joke, a riddle, and/What shall we do with –/me: a suspended sentence.” Crate tells stories as fluidly as she fiddles with individual words, always blending strong emotions with ingenious, often playful technique.
The first and third portions of the book echo Shawnadithit’s isolation and extinction. That’s not to say, of course, that Foreign Homes is merely a well-wrought downer. Crate’s wit flavours the sad truth in her poems: “Identity/is a hood ornament on the old clunker/I’m ready to sell if anyone’s buying.” It’s rare to find a poet with both guts and restraint. If only 12 years could distill such vintage from all of us.
Reviewed by Jana Prikryl (from the February 2002 issue)