Foreign Homes by Joan Crate
Reviewed by Tanis MacDonald (Prairie Fire Review of Books (September 2003))
Shortlisted in 2002 for the Pat Lowther Award as offered by the League of Canadian poets, Foreign Homes is the long-awaited second book of poetry by Alberta writer Joan Crate. Family figures strongly in nearly every poem, though in Crate's text, the family is almost never a comfortable, middle-class concept or a suburban refuge for the world-weary. The families that Joan Crate examines in this book are headed by women, most often tired, chain-smoking mothers who have to think too much about how to get money to put food on the table. Yet these poems do not sentimentalize or romanticize poverty, and they are free from the acrid tang of self-conscious confession. Poems like "Dirty Dream" and "You Who Have Disappeared" delve into what may have become of the lost fathers of these ragged families, and "Flash Back" and "Love Poem (for Marian)" search for the tough and talented women of the narrator's memory.
The centre section, which anchors the whole book, is titled "Loose Feathers on Stone," a poem cycle for Shawnandithit, the last surviving Beothuk, a people who met their collective deaths through the colonization of Newfoundland by white settlers. This section definitely recalls earlier canonical Canadian poetry, especially AI Purdy's "Laments for the Dorsets"; Crate's poetic rendering of Shawnandithit's final years illuminates a piece of history that is too little remembered or brought into public discourse. "Loose Feathers on Stone" is the most difficult family story in this collection, as its protagonist has lost everything that may resemble a family relation. Her final years working in a white family's home, refusing to climb stairs to the second floor because the height dizzies her, to her eventual death from tuberculosis, is Crate's best work in this book. This kind of historical reach and contemplation is difficult, but Crate resists the temptation to make Shawnandithit an iconic character or a political idea. Instead, Crate's disparate images gives the reader flashes of possible scenarios and Shawnandithit herself remains a mystery, as she must, to emphasize her complete disappearance from our twentieth-century perspective and ways of knowing. "Unmarked Grave," the opening poem to this sequence, surprises with its sonnet form and presents an informed sorrow.
Tanis MacDonald has had poems appear in Henry Street, The Fiddlehead and Prairie Fire. Her chapbook This Speaking Plant won the Acorn Rukeyser Award in 1997, and a second chapbook, Breathing November (Staccato Chapbooks), was published in 1999. Her collection Holding Ground was published by Seraphim Press in Spring, 2000. She won the Bliss Carman Poetry Award for 2002.