Review of Anthem
From , Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, September 2, 2006

Review of Anthem, by Helen Humphreys

At first glance, this  compact selection does not appear to be a song or hymn of praise or gladness.  However, there is an antiphonal quality to the writing, and, perhaps, the reader response is meant to be the alternation.  At some level, the work operates as a secular version of the Divine Office or canonical hours of prayer to be read (or said) daily.

The title poem, in six sections, deals with a shared secret, such as erotic wordplay of ligature, “untie me.”  The lover’s body is a river, on which the beloved walks, “holding up the sky.”  The human heart contains waters and stars “leak from the skin.”  Though the dead forgive us, it is necessary to leave them.  The only italic is “Love.  Love.”

In “Chinchillas”, the animals were unimaginable, “A fur coat cut and sewn back into an animal.”   Her close friend is nearly illiterate (“For Jackie, Who Will Never Read This”). Who are her heroes, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf; “Goodbye, goodbye.  Jane, Virginia, Anne.  Language / is the shelter you prepared for me.” (“Reading”)

As in music, she is interested in fashioning variations on a theme, such that the narrative weaves, slides, and rains down on the unsuspecting reader.  (“Narrative”)  The natural world is a landscape of the mind.  Both shape and shadows survive without us.  Memory must stand the test of time (“Reunion”)  Even naming is relational (“By Definition”)  Childhood friends meet their deaths.  A woman produces poetry as prophesy.  As each lover is a thief, “Who that rescues doesn’t also / dream of being saved?” (“False Alarms”)

It has been said that imitation is the best form of flattery.  An example of this is imitation in style of a previous literary work.  Of course, a literary composition may be made up of selections from different works.  The poet cites multiple sources (not all of them literary) as inspiration, influence, and echo, rather than strictly  a pastiche.  She chooses to emphasize what is changed in outward form, rather than what remains the same.  This act saves the result from becoming a potpourri.  According to the poet, she achieved these compositions by means of transformation, “using most of the same words…but subverting the order and meaning.”

In “Architecture of the Everyday”, the venues are: “House”, “Factory”, “Port”, “Suburbs”, “Stairwell”, “Roof”, “Window” and “Arch”.  The buildings are merely bricks and “measured glass”, etched in memory.  Light is personified as “shy” and able to “tumble”, (“August”)  A woman is both the rolling sea and the ship (“Body Double”).  Breathing and the breath pause are essential factors.  The mouth enunciates. 

With three previous books of poetry, Gods and Other Mortals (1986), Nuns Looking Anxious, Listening to Radios (1990), and The Perils of Geography (1995) all from Brick. she completed a novel, Leaving Earth (HarperCollins, 1997).  According to Books in Print (2005), we can add: Afterimage (HarperCollins, 2000), The Lost Garden (HarperCollins, 2002), and Wild Dogs (HarperCollins, 2004).

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