Botero’s Beautiful Horses
by Jan Conn
London, Ontario, Brick Books, 2009, ISBN 978-1-894078-71-9, 135 pp., $19.00 paper.
Jan Conn has published six previous books of poetry. Her first, Red Shoes in the Rain, was published by Fiddlehead Press in 1984. The Fabulous Disguise of Ourselves (1986), South of the Tudo Bem Café (1990), What Dante Did with Loss (1994) and Beauties on Mad River: Selected and New Poems (2000) were published by Véhicule Press. Brick Books published the next two–this one and Jaguar Rain: the Margaret Mee poems (2006), inspired by the diaries and botanical art of Margaret Mee. In her professional life, Conn studies the evolution and ecology of mosquitoes that transmit pathogens.
Asked by Sharon Caseburg, in an interview that appeared in the winter 2008 edition of CV2, why she had chosen to write poetry rather than something like creative non-fiction, Conn responded that “Poetry is wide open, it is at the vanguard of language, and I find this immensely stimulating. I love rhythm and sound in language, and poetry has both melodic forms and the possibility of playfulness (rhymes, assonance, alliteration, and so on) within a line.”
Botero’s Beautiful Horses captures the aspects of irrealism expressed by such artists as Giorgio de Chirico and Remedios Varo. They are reflected in “The Flower Carriers,” which addresses the Latino holiday Conn refers to as El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). They are evident when Conn refers to artist (and companion of Diego Rivera) Frida Kahlo: “I buy a thousand faces of Frida Kahlo and a pet monkey / and wake up with white calla lilies instead of eyes.” (21) This poem begins with an example of Conn’s love of alliteration: “In Chapultepec Park a hundred coffins, followed by weeping widows, / ride on the bronze backs of Botero’s beautiful horses.” We also find the influence of Pablo Neruda, particularly in the fifth stanza:
River made of moonstone, of obsidian, of salt.
Mist with its small ivory noise.
The death of the sun: on this day the volcano will erupt
and the rain god ride down from the sky
on the coiled tails of rattlesnakes.
Listen to the rhythm of that quotation. Is it any wonder why Conn sought out poetry instead of prose by which to express herself?
Conn’s love of rhyme in its various guises is apparent in “Three Rain Gods” (39). The middle lines radiate this charm: “Setting themselves up as a koan. / Oh, she moans, don’t be three, be singular. / Fracture the lonelyhearts light of March, / bleak and merciless, slippery.” The internal rhyme between “koan” and “moan” is evident. But the assonantal rhyme between “fracture” and “march” may not be. The shorted final line sets up the rhythm of this piece. That line could have ended with “merciless” to good effect. But the addition of “slippery” separates the novice from the experienced.
The opening of the multi-part poem “Comma Comma She Said (Prelude to Mother’s Day)” is startling. This is the poem from Mars adrift in a sea of Mexicalia that the back cover promised. We read:
My mother’s wrists descend redly;
her eyebrows are queen.
The magpie takes pleasure
in its blue throat of despair.
Paraglottis, epiglottis, glot, gloat–
don’t let your tame stoat
steal my favourite reading glasses.
That’s the way it’s done on Mars,
it says so right in the manual. (59)
There is so much poetry packed into this short section: the use of “queen” as a quality, the near rhyme of “pleasure” and “despair,” the playfulness of “paraglottis” leading to the full end rhyme of “gloat” and “stoat”–one might think Conn a student of Karasick. This is exceptionally fine poetry. And the three couplets that conclude it are exemplary of that:
When the green is over, cruel winter,
bring me your twelve white hounds, ice kisses.
Would you love me better if I were a radish,
a rare dish, a white wine, a fine bouquet?
There is nothing like a blush
to encourage me to play Red Pearl on my zither. (62)
Incredibly, amongst the extensive notes on the poems found at the end of the book, the only reference to this poem, one of the most complex, is a dedication.
There are times, though infrequent, when Conn should have stepped back to examine her poetry a little more objectively. The opening couplet of “Anyone’s Desire”: “Desire, desire, desire! Give me back mine / and I’ll give you yours, or someone’s.” (107) sounds as if it should have deep, intense meaning. It doesn’t. If instead the poem had begun with “Wrap your long hank of hair around Neptune / and reel it in, cool ultramarine, / an immense astral fish.”, the emotion of the final triad, which already sings with a celestial music and rhythm, would have been intensified:
The lady in red lost her head. She strides
between canyon walls, on perfumed tiles,
she glows at night. She’s the real star.
That is the danger of a poet seemingly falling in love with her own lines. You can afford to be passionate and subjective during the process of writing the poem. You can’t afford anything but objectivity in the editing process.
Conn is an exceptionally fine poet. A close reading of her lines provides lessons in how to write poetry. As a result of her background, she brings new dimensions to poetic imagery. She is well worth reading.
John Herbert Cunningham is a Winnipeg writer. He reviews poetry in Canada for Malahat Review, Arc, Antigonish Review, Fiddlehead and The Danforth Review, in the U.S. for Quarterly Conversations, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Big Bridge and Galatea Revisits, and in Australia for Jacket.