The gashed and bleeding angel on the cover of Jan Conn’s Botero’s Beautiful Horses hints at the serenity, violence, and divinity within the book’s pages. Plunging into Conn’s seventh collection of poetry confirms that she has created something extraordinary and fundamentally captivating.
In Botero’s Beautiful Horses, Conn navigates the transformative forces of art and place. Set largely in Latin America, the work is full of Mayan and Spanish names and locations. Conn allows the unfamiliar to become part of her as she responds through poetry to these places and to the artists who belong to them. By deliberately engaging with languages and cultures outside her own, she embraces otherness to such an extent as to nearly dissolve the concept. Constant, fearless interjection of herself into the moments and works of others in places and times outside her experience reveals a boundlessness that is both natural and startling. Her poetry, arranged in six poem sequences, becomes an act of archaeology — resurrecting, interpreting, and reimagining the histories of others. In “Angel Falls,” she tells of an expedition from the 1940s where the people
paint body and face red with vegetable dyes,
chant their magical songs–
The whole expedition coming back as howler monkeys,
pumas, pale-throated sloths, longtailed weasels
in the next life,
forgetting words, fitting into the sky.
She does not limit herself by time or geography; she contains “no single self but multitudes, all squeezed into the same body.” Yet with a sense of contradiction that characterizes her work, she writes in “People of the Left-Sided hummingbird” of a torn heart whose “pieces long to be reunited, but it’s too late.” In her attempt to connect the fragments of her experience, Conn transforms the places she has contact with and the memories attached to them, sometimes closing the divide, other times mourning the separation of loss.
Her desire for transformation, “to see [her] old selves sloughed off as painlessly” as snakeskin, drives much of her writing and connects her to both the physical world and the landscape of memory and dreams. In “Yellow Dog,” dreams entwine with reality; either the memory of a dreamtime dog comes back to her when she wakes, or “a yellow scrap of a dog” she meets in the daytime enters her dreams. Whichever the true encounter, her contact with this dog alters both worlds for her. The dream world counts in Conn’s work. “I’m rehearsing my dreams / for an interview with Salvador Dali,” she writes.
Conn’s response to art and dreamscapes is anchored by her engagement with the natural world. She identifies with the land: “when they tremble, I tremble,” she says of her “Spanish mountains.” And in “Cameta,” colours of the landscape mix with memory and emotion:
Once I rowed a wooden boat
to a cobalt island, where all the rocks were shades
of blue. I dreamed this again and again.
Perhaps I was trying to grow up but could not,
for the blue was the blue of raw feelings, confusion, somehow
mixed in with my mother’s sudden death.
In drawing on a place that bleeds and gushes colour, a place that demands response, Conn seems to find an antidote to numbness and loss of meaning. Conversely, the river journey in “Orinoco” centres on a struggle to interpret the natural world, “fingers brushing the leaves / as though reading Braille.”
Adopting a biocentric viewpoint in “The Suriname Frog” allows Conn to merge the narrator’s existence with that of the eponymous frog’s, sidestepping the confines of the physical world in the process. But her sense of the natural world is also grounded by contemporary concerns: the environmental crisis inherent in “Climactic” ends in the nightmare of “oceans rising.”
In her book of poetry, Conn captures the danger of life, the howling, wounded, sacred things, and the moments of green, rarely peaceful, but tangled and vibrant. Conn’s work reveals her understanding of ecology, and as a poet and a biologist she merges art and science, writing of “delirious magnolia / and crepe myrtle” in the same breath as “the clipped language of mathematics.” Conn fully inhabits the world, uses it to explore her multitudes, and does not separate herself even from the unfamiliar.
Botero’s Beautiful Horses is elegantly produced, with notes at the end explaining cultural details and references. Inspired cover art by Leslie Zeidenweber reflects the pause between violence and divinity that Conn references in a perfectly chosen epigraph by Octavio Paz: “Time is resting.”
Just as the strong, lavish bodies of Fernando Botero’s horse sculptures were built to shoulder ideologies, so Conn has with reworked materials created something intractable and elemental. Her work is embedded with contrast and contradictions, is harsh and pliable, full of starlight and fire and blood, and yet she achieves equilibrium that knocks the reader off kilter: look up from the page, steady yourself, and you are changed.
JANET GRAFTON is a graduate student from Vancouver Island, BC. Her areas of research include environmental studies and children’s literature. At the moment, she is working as an intern at Foxglove Farm and Centre for Arts, Ecology, and Agriculture on Salt Spring Island, BC.