Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Is by Anne Simpson

Is, the latest collection of poetry from Canadian author Anne Simpson, was, at least for me, a surprising and lovely experience. The thing about Is, is that it isn't always poetry in the traditional and expected sense.

The collection starts, quite appropriately, with a poem entitled "Books of Beginnings" which stretches over several pages, the first page containing only the line "before you were a cell, dividing into cells and more cells-" with the text all at the bottom of the pages, the subsequent two pages each possessing a paragraph made up of a kind of list of things before- "before crumpled dark before tarnished dark" she writes- and not having any punctuation. On the fourth page in the top corner, Simpson writes "You are the world dividing.", using punctuation once again to help break up the poem before continuing into several pages with text at the top, lists of things which are separated, "You are day divided from night," she writes. Over the subsequent pages the poem shifts almost imperceptibly into a story of creation, "Fire. You are what you embrace- heat, in its thousand costumes.", Simpson writes, and then later "Ash, a layer of velvet, dressed up as beauty when it's merely wreckage." a line which was my favourite of the poem. The poem ends with the line "Beginning, ending, beginning.", summing up the contrast within the poem, the division and conflict it contains. Overall, "Books of Beginnings" which takes up 12 pages makes up over 10% of Is and provides a perfect introduction to Simpson, how she plays with the shape of the page and the sounds of words, her poetry is also a very much visual experience.

The following poem, "Cell Division" is also visually unique, it is divided up into three identical portions of text, each labeled as a figure and found on a subsequent page, containing progressively smaller text and more columns. "Cell Division" is the story of a seduction and the repetition within the poem as well as the back and forth of "him" and "her" pronouns results in a poem which is both rushed and slow, the hesitant pull of the lovers' passion. Later poems also use unexpected spacing or placement of words, striking through words at one point, and the poem in the collection, "Double Helix" is actually shaped like a double helix. With Simpson's maturity of words and quiet eloquence, her playful formatting adds an unexpected dimension to her poetry. The reader is forced to follow her words across the page, lead there not only by their beauty but also by the form that Simpson has given them.

There were times however when I craved a little more rigidity within the poems, such as in "Divide, Break" when the lack of punctuation felt familiar instead of surprising and the repeated use of the word "break" in various contexts- "Break into break up break down break out break off break open" felt more like wordplay than actual poetry. "Child" a play on various nursery rhymes likewise failed to create a connection with me as a reader. In contrast to some of the less emotionally interesting poems, Simpson shared gems such as "At the Bottom of the World, a Tree of Gold", a delicate piece combining imagery of nature and the slow decay of letting go of a person you love. One page of the poem goes:
"It's October. The souls of the flower have risen into the cool air. Phlox, daisies, lilies, roses. The leaves of the hostas are yellow, waxy.

You've come to strip the garden for winter. You have shears in your hands.

But you think of your fingers on her scalp, making circles. The way the two of you were quiet.

When you rinsed her hair, she didn't complain. Silver ran down her neck, down her back- music slipping away from the body, returning to it."
It epitomizes what is lovely about the collection, the simplicipity of Is, the quiet images and scenes. More than the unique and interesting formats of the poems, moments like these are the ones which will stay with me as a reader. "At the Bottom of the World, a Tree of Gold" is not a poem with a predictable form either, it is a snapshot on many pages, but it is not something that overpowers the reader but rather something you look back on, and realize that the reason why it felt like a collection of memories was partially due to the way it Simpson spread out and divided the scenes within the poem.

The range of topics Simpson covers in Is is broad. Several poems focus on the political "Viva Voce" is a long poem dedicated to oil spills and "Life Magazine" begins with a woman seeing the photograph of a monk who lit himself on fire in 1963 and delves into the consequences of war through vivid images, but others feel quite personal. Throughout them all, there is a scientific underpinning, which is unusual in poetry. From describing the poem as three figures in "Cell Division", to talking about creation as beginning from a cell in "Books of Beginnings", to the title of the final poem, "Double Helix", Simpson manages to intertwine the scientific with the poetic throughout the collection. Nature also appears regularly, with water in particular playing an important role in many of the poems including "Viva Voce", "River", "Flood", "Flood, Translated", "Flood, Interior View" and "Boat of Dawn, Boat of Dusk" as well as appearing subtly in many more.

The last poem in the collection is "Double Helix" and it is clear why Simpson saved it for the end. It is a poem which describes what two people are made of, both as a list of things "unlit dust of stars. / Blood, / bone. / Salt / on skin." as well as traits, incidents and desires. The twisted format of the poem works surprisingly well in the way it leads the reader's eye up and down and across the pages, and circular in the sense that the end can easily once again become the beginning. If anything, I feel "Double Helix" it would have made a better title for the collection, although Is works (besides the difficulty of using it in a sentence, especially in a review when I feel compelled not to say Is is too often) the poem of the same name is good but not remarkable. Ultimately, I felt this was a collection about creation, about the start of something new, about the thin line between a beginning and an ending and how they twist together like a double helix, intertwined, both are necessary for it to be complete. While there were a few times I craved a stronger emotional connection in Is, overall Simpson has created a book remarkable for the simple beauty of her poetry and the complex originality of her structure resulting in a collection which compels the reader from page to page with the wave-like power of her writing.

Release Date: March 29th, 2011
Pages: 104
: Publisher

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  1. This sounds interesting but looks like I should read the book not on Kindle in order to get the true visual.

  2. It would be fascinating to see these poems as they are in the book. Non-traditional formats can add so much to the text.


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