Review of The Martha Landscapes
From Jeanette Seim , Canadian Forum (February 1985)

Landscape and Language

THE MARTHA LANDSCAPES by Colleen Thibaudeau

DOCTRINE OF SIGNATURES by Anne Szumigalski

Twelve years after their appearance in Dorothy Livesay’s anthology, Forty Women Poets of Canada, Colleen Thibaudeau and Anne Szumigalski have each published their fourth volume of poetry. Born in the mid-20’s, these two poets are committed members of the Canadian writing community, Thibaudeau in her association with Brick Books and Szumigalski as an editor of Grain, creative writing teacher and co-founder of the Saskatchewan Writers Colony.

            Taken together, these two volumes delineate and expansive, multi-faceted and complex poetic landscape. Although Szumigalski’s poems are written primarily against the backdrop of the Canadian prairies and most of Tibaudeau’s are “set” in southwestern Ontario, both poets’ concern with the past results in a shifting array of temporal and spatial landscapes. These volumes evoke a particularized, personal past as well as a larger historical and cultural perspective. A specifically feminine vision of the past is explored by Thibaudeau and Szumigalski through their shared interest in matriarchal lineage.

            In Thibaudeau, the image of the mother/grandmother as craftswoman and folk artist provides a sense of cultural identity and gives form and meaning to the speakers’ past. This form-giving activity is imaged, in the first Martha Landscape poem as a quilt:  “Last night I dreamed about you all under the Star Over the House Quilt;/ I remember mother making it:  the little squares of lonquil window lit/ The doors, shutters onen green.” Thibaudeau’s descriptive style here typifies the highly visual quality of the entire collection and her revitalization of the past as filtered through the first person perspective into the present.

            The evocation of an object—a quilt or, in the third Martha poem, “grandmother’s sugar shell (spoon)” constitutes only one of Thibaudeau’s approaches to the past. Her found poem, Rules for Spinning (for Al Purdy) utilizes a documentary technique in contrast to the more elegiac, nostalgic approach of The Tin Shop (“The canaries . . . are they in the/ end gone like the/ song and the feather?” or the anecdotal dramatization of Sociable People Wondering What I Do.

            Szumigalski’s title, Doctrine of Signatures, refers back to a folkloric past that is, in its associations with naming, resemblance and identification, implicitly related to metaphor and the poetic act itself.  In the book’s epilogue, the speaker declares that “the doctrine of signatures” is an “ancient herbal doctrine based on the resemblance of certain plants or plant parts to specific human organs. It is still widely believed that Providence has placed these signatures in plants so that Man may more easily recognize their medicinal virtues.” This folkloric wisdom or “doctrine of signatures” is metaphorically linked to the grandmother in Szumigalski’s Heroines, a poem that posits two conflicting images of femininity:  the fragile, beautiful princess in the “book with fine glossy/ illustrations” and the more authentic figure of the speaker’s earthy grandmother.

granny your mouth is planted with
       rue and artemesia
the bitter herbs of the last meal
when you speak you chew on them
and tears come to your eyes
squinted against the sun your arms
are stained with brown flecks
you  cannot wear makeup it would
   slide like rain
from you tanned face it would fall as
               dust          
into the dust of the prairie

Whereas Thibaudeau’s image of the past arises from a texture of accumulated visual particulars, Heroines typifies Szumigalski’s use of extended metaphor and intricately delineated sets of oppositions:  princess:grandmother, “silk and lace”:  “floursack  nightgown,” artifice: authenticity, art:life.

            Szumigalski’s Heroines foreshadows a concern central throughout Doctrine of Signatures:  the rhetoric of artifice and the danger of the poetic voice becoming, as in The Apple, Roman, or Edible Snail, a “hallow priestess voice.” Thibaudeau is more comfortable with language and the “authority” of the poet, while Szumigalski’s poems express more skepticism about the creative process and the poet’s task of naming. In Our Sullen Art, Szumigalski speaks of “our pathetic language of poems,” and numerous other poems in Doctrine have poetry as their subject.

            Of the two poets, Szumigalski’s poetic vision is ultimately darker and more apocalyptic. That Szumigalski depicts a bleaker poetic landscape than Thibaudeau is evident in the two poets’ styles. The Doctrine poems tend to be open-ended or, at best, conclude on an ambivalent note. Szumigalski’s The Musicologist concludes with “a long moment of silence,” and The Almshouse depicts “our village” in which “time has come to an end.” Thibaudeau’s title poem, The Martha Landscapes, concludes with an image of rebirth/ spring and the line “now that we are born.” Both books exhibit a strong sense of play, but Thibaudeau achieves comic effects largely through phonetic devices such as internal rhyme, alliterations or the Carrollian linguistic whimsy of from Throgmole & Ebgestchin:  A relationship:  Throgmoggle  Fordful / manty overgoo / bog manty gong grappling.” Szumigalski’s comic effects are closer to black humour, as in her comic but violent Hanner Hwch Hanner Hob—The Fitch, a pseudo-ballad about pigs that is closer to George Orwell than Thonton Burgess.

            Although both Thibaudeau and Szumigalski write primarily personal, narrative poetry, the former’s phonetic ornateness and abundance of organizational punctuated, open-ended poems of Szumigalski. Doctrines of Signatures also contains prose poems, written in a concise and condensed style, that are not formally unlike those in Margaret Atwood’s Murder in the Dark. Both Thibaudeau and Szumigalski display an awareness of the complex layers of time, place and voice. The descriptive textures of The Martha Landscapes and the syntactic challenges of Doctrine of Signatures constitute two dynamic volumes of poetry.

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