Review of The Artemesia Book
From Elizabeth Brewster , The Fiddlehead (fall 1992)

Moonlight & Wormwood

In the final poem in this collection by Colleen Thibaudeau, she writes, “Sometimes I wonder whether I am the last person left alive/ Who started school with a slate and slate pencil.” And I can say, “No, Colleen, I did too.” In fact, there is much in the experience of the book, its times and places that I find familiar, even though I am also aware of strange and surreal elements in it. In Thibaudeau’s world, opposites mingle:  domesticities as comforting as “crab-apple jelly/ wild-grape jam/ wild cranberry & the like”; disasters like the drowning of the father with his three small daughters in “The Green Family.”

That final poems, “Looking at the Artemesia Book,” is typical in that it contains both the “innocence and freedom” of childhood and the terror of what the smallest children just missed seeing”  “the bob-sleigh smash into the doctor’s car/ And the Entrance Class killed,” causing a scene that was “like/ The Abattoir.” The poem mentions the “clear fresh air/ of Artemesia” (as place is it, then?) But Artemisia (with a slightly different spelling) is another name for wormwood—a name in keeping with the hint of a bitter flavor in a number of poems, And Artemis, of course, is the Greek goddess of the moon, of wild beasts and the hunt. Moonlight is beautiful, magical, sometimes deceitful, and ambiguous light, but light of the imagination.

Or perhaps the light is “childlight,” as in “Childlight Town”;

          My eye goes out clear as a peery
          Clickets a little getting started
          —Like Stepping over a star—    
          And then falls down to Childlight Town.

In Childlight Town, where she finds her grandmother, “The air/ was as blue as a blue glass cup and as clear.” Together, child and grandmother look up at the maple leaves, “fat green stars.” There are also cousins who come “Yelling that I would not go to heaven,/ And that they were coming to bust my dishes up.”

Childhood memories, or children observed, are always turning up in the poems. The wildness of children, their sympathy with storm, comes out in “The Children and the Storm,” where their cries are “like pink lightning,” and the verbs are violent:  “shrieked,” “tussled,” “wrestled,” “scuffed.” A gentler connection with the natural world is suggested in “Butterfly Window,” where she writes of the three-year-old:

          She’s not talking to me, she’s talking
          to the big Horse Chestnut latinlike
          rain leaf & moss wetroof talk . . .

Pain and whimsy mix in “White Bracelets,” in which “raw & festering” scars turn to “white bracelets,” like harmless white clouds. “Beatie’s Palaces” is both a memory of “our” more protected childhood and a portrait of the less-protected Beatie, maker of palaces from the leaves in other people’s yards.

Memories of the past—childhood or youth—are often triggered by objects in the present. In “My Grandmother’s Sugar Shell, Ontario Baroque,” the sugar shell brings memories of the grandmother. She puts on “My Mother’s Old The Dansant Dress,” and thinks “my whole life-span is in this dress.” In “Listening In Together,” a moth dancing in tune to Beethoven via radio on a dark summer night makes her thing of a lost friend:

          I see again the beautiful Luna sipping
          At the sugarwater we left set out on a summer nights
          On the bedroom window ledge.

Thibaudeau has kept something of the child’s innocent eye in observation. She has also kept the love of sound and delight in fresh and surprising imagery. I think for instance, of the beautiful and mysterious “Lullaby of the Child for the Mother:”

          The child who never lived was the real child
          whose lovely eyes were seas
          and little limbs were lullabies
          and lovely seas

          . . . .

          He said, my mother is a stair
          where strangers pass
          and when night rocks me round
          then I am sure
          Her hair is wind that shakes the elder tree
          her eyes are seas

Or there is “My Granddaughters Are Combing Out Their Long Hair,” the title poem of the one of her earlier books. These are poems full of alliteration, assonance, repetition. There is “The Tin Shop,” with its sound of canaries, as well as its memories of the Depression. Among the recent poems is “Running Down to Barachois,” which combines a strong, rather comic narrative with an effectively repeated refrain. Definitely a poem for voices.

This is an impressive collection by a gifted and original poet, a true lyric voice. It would be easy to underestimate poetry which seems so unassuming, sometimes such pleasant play; but it is serious play that requires great skill and deftness.

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