Review of The Martha Landscapes
From John Donlan , Arc (Volume 17), Autumn 1986

Star-Filled Heads: Thibaudeau, Hall, Mouré

Reviews of The Martha Landscapes by Colleen Thibaudeau, A Minor Operation by Phil Hall, Why I Haven’t Written by Phil Hall, and Domestic Fuel by Erin Mouré

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes Martha as the patron saint of housewives, traditionally “accompanied by a dragon bound”. It is an apt emblem for modern housepersons, as we grab a fortifying gulp of coffee or poetry between bouts with the hissing and serpentine vacuum cleaner. Like poets, we are acquainted with the terrible energy of randomness, the constant effort to create some order in the face of entropy’s raging. Beloved animals shed fur; quilt fibers fracture and drift, invisible, into corners; family and friends track in the whole outdoors, practically; until at last, amorphous grey creatures boldly confront us from under the bureau, and there is a reckoning.

As a well-kept household symbolizes a Martha’s love for its inhabitants, Colleen Thibaudeau’s dustless and gleaming poetry shows her care and attention to the invisible networks which link us to each other and to our world. Her beautifully crafted poems celebrate a meticulously observed dailiness which her lyric gift transforms into enduring art.

“Last night I dreamed” illustrates the redeeming power of applied imagination, through the typically Martha-ish act of quilting. The mother’s devoted care creates a shelter for “lifetime dreams”:

Her eyes puzzled out each stitch; she declared her fingers to be all pricked
And she licked the blood from roofs, sidewalks, from the small yards
With the ever-blooming trees pointing to the stars
Of the Star Over the House Quilt.

“The Glass Cupboard” reminds us how this loving attention can make homely, everyday objects more than ordinary. While households sleep (“just dark seven sleepers gone seas about”),

green glasses, safe-and-wide as Sweden; and cheap
little ruby liqueurs sing; and cocktail Libbys supermart
violent and fresh

assume the Martha’s role, keeping vigil in

this cupboard ark that tends the tides
of dream. They light, they guard the house,
glow like an icon of Mike Todd, thirty-odd glasses,
touched off by random headlights moving toward the Bay.

The Martha Landscapes begins from strength with the two poems quoted above. But the book’s subject matter, while occasionally domestic, is not housework. A witty and mischievous exception, “Inwhich I Realize I Meant To Clean Up My Brother’s House As A Nice Surprise For When He Came Back From His Camp And That I Have Left It A Bit Late” ends with an Edenic vision:

after Herculean labours among
stripped, blipped Bedclothes (mats
bureau-drawers spilling their dry Niagaras)

lianas, vines of the lines of the leotards parted. struggling out

built black as earth’s bottom,
Incandescent garden full fall

Thibaudeau confronts life’s more painful assaults honestly, without indulging in sentimentalism or despair in “All My Nephews Have Gone to the Tar Sands”.

One slept in his truck all winter
40 below and no postal code
One helpless watched his little farm-girl wife
Let the home-sick tears freeze into terrible silence.
One fathered what I nickname
The Tar Sands Baby.

Nor does she shrink from social engagement. The found poem “Rules for Spinning” lists the harsh and niggling fines by which nineteenth-century factory owners eroded employee’s salaries; lists the power looms destroyed by desperate cottage weavers; lists the men and women shot for opposing industrial “progress”. And “The Tin Shop”, where

The Tinsmith bred canaries
that lived in tin apartments
elaborate as palaces

became a meeting place
for men
displaced workers
all their strength now
gone into those deep voices
vibrantly disaffected
politically haranguing

ends on a note of longing for those expressions of social conscience which are now nearly extinct in Canada:

The men’s words, strong,
bedevilled, are they in the
end gone like the
songs and the feathers?

Thibaudeau’s strategy is often to focus on particular incidents and places until they achieve a timeless resonance. Marooned in Saint Thomas on a civic holiday, while “The Queen Anne’s Lace growing by the tracks droops a bit forlorn in the iron breeze”, “the Tomato Pickers have that slumbering energy of the temporarily entombed … As even after the holocaust, language unusable stiff-boned, laughter and energies benumbed, the Tomato Pickers of the earth will rise, picking their way out of the rubble; small people, incomprehensible to most, battered suitcases clutched; enduring.”

In a special issue of Brick (5, Winter 1979) devoted to Colleen Thibaudeau, Don and Jean McKay’s perceptive essay, “Colleen Thibaudeau’s Elastic Moment”, discovers a duality in her poems published in Poetry (Chicago) and in My Granddaughters are Combing Out Their Long Hair (Coach House, 1977). They suggest that the “the Mary-Martha or adventurer-integrator combination works like breathing, or faring forth and homing, or maybe scattering and harvesting seed”. In the dreamlike title poem of The Martha Landscapes which ends the volume, these functions of the poet’s persona have so fused that they become interchangeable. When “the Bears backed us into the Cave”, it is the disciplined Martha who chooses “to go, a straight path into the future”. The narrator stays in the cave, pursuing an inward adventure of rebirth, until eventually she becomes, like the bears, part of landscape:

I am comfortable
moreso in the springtime than just previous.
We hear far down the splash of oars
the small clip of oarlocks
hear mother’s voice counselling patience
hope of fresh fish for breakfast.
We let the fog lick us all over
now that we are born.

Her technical mastery, combined with the transforming and ordering power of her imaginative vision, assure Colleen Thibaudeau a lasting place among Canada’s finest poets.

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