Review of Botero’s Beautiful Horses
From George Elliott Clarke , Halifax Chronicle-Herald, March 7, 2010

Conn shines in travel poems when she moves inward

TOMORROW is International Women’s Day. In celebration, we read Jan Conn and Angela Hibbs.

Conn has the eclectic bio essential for a uniquely clairvoyant poet. Born in the raw-edged mining town of Asbestos, Que., she now lives in Great Barrington, Mass., where she is a professor of biomedical sciences. Her research interest is mosquitoes.

Her work has taken her throughout South America. Her previous six books have drawn upon her varied exotic experiences and innately exciting locales, but her seventh, Botero’s Beautiful Horses (Brick, $19), may be her best.

The temptation, though, in writing the “travel” poem, the poem about beautifully different places, faces, flora, and fauna, is to just present the fascinating décor and omit the revealing, personal analysis. The result is a pretty picture, not the poet’s pierced heart. That’s what happens, here and there, in Conn: “Women in white lace / infields of marigolds and poppies. // A headless god behind glass. // The Angel of the Revolution / painted into a corner. // At Xochicalco a vermillion flycatcher flares among the trees, // the serpents exhale a last smoky breath, / curl at the foot of the temple.”

The images are an iridescent slide-show. Better are the moments where the poet confesses her need to merge with what she observes, to become local in doing, thinking, and feeling: “Graffiti on the fired bricks, hidden / beneath once-white stucco…. // And us on all fours, /licking each other tenderly / like jet black jaguars.”

Yes, when Conn moves inward, as in her arresting, complex elegy for (perhaps) her mother, she shows us pain, not a painting: “Do serve me corn flan in an egg cup. / Don’t get drunk on the cheek of a fish. / Say my mother never really left me. / Don’t say her soul spread everywhere like jam. // If I choose to inhabit the Tahitian batik / don’t tell me what the daughter of a suicide can’t do. . . .”

Even so, Lip-Reading Jean Cocteau, is a fine blend of the poignant and the picturesque: “Let me crawl out the window and into the graveyard. //… My father has a green head, green eyes; my mother // is scarlet. Yes, I’ll sup on goat flambé and live white mice. // . . . When we reach Madrid, I will eliminate Hitler. . . .”

Reading Conn, one learns much about science, nature, art, history, and the dizzying ways they intersect. But magic is more wondrous than study: “My gondola tilts. When I regain my footing // I’m inside a glass globe filled with white flakes. // The galaxy is shaking.”…

George Elliott Clarke is a professor of literature at University of Toronto. In 2001, he won the Governor General’s Award for poetry.


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