Saturday, December 4, 2010

Review: Winterkill, by Catherine Graham

Every now and then, you get to meet a poet who reinforces the idea that a welcoming and generous personality can sometimes translate into welcoming and generous verse. I met Catherine Graham a number of times around literary events when I first moved to Toronto and was grateful for her curiosity and her warmth. I was happy to attend the launch of her new poetry book Winterkill a few weeks ago and to pick up a copy. While the collection is small and the poems therein are sometimes very short, the gifts they offer are expansive and reward close attention.

The chief strength of Winterkill’s poems are they way they can often present a brief, singular snapshot of an extremely complex moment. Graham does this time and time again in this collection, with poems like “He Goes Everywhere with You, Your Brother,” a story about spreading the ashes of a dead sibling, or in “Boy and Lawn”, a poem about having a crush on the young man your father has hired to mow the yard. (“I wanted every day/ to be Saturday, for the grass/ to grow high like the waiting/ inside me …) Winterkill is adept at allowing the reader’s own imagination and experience to do most of the heavy lifting; Graham gives us just enough words to cause a little burst of recognition, or knowledge, or speculation, in our minds.

Take, for example, the poem “I Almost Laughed at Mother’s Funeral.” It contains only a single, italicized line: She’s not in there. But the combination of that line and the poem’s title does a lot to your brain. Maybe you conjure up the image of a solemn but awkward funeral, a gathering of mourners sitting before a minister who’s just a wee bit out of place in his role, perhaps because he didn’t know the deceased personally. And maybe, in a moment of feigned familiarity, he said something mildly gormless, and it caused a suppressed chuckle from the grieving daughter. Who knows. But that’s the beauty of this and so many other poems in Winterkill: you’re given lots of space to fill in the blanks on your own.

Another thing I loved about this collection is the way it makes subtle references to popular or everyday culture without naming them outright – once again, allowing your brain to tease these things out on your own. I’m thinking specifically of two back-to-back poems: “Eat Me,” which, if I’m not mistaken, makes reference to Trix brand cereal – “I wanted the box with/ the white rabbit on it … Rabbit played his next trick./ His laughter shook/ all the boxes on the shelves”; and “My Only Dance with My Father”, which alludes to the braying croon of Chris DeBurgh’s “Lady in Red.” Skillful allusions, both.

Despite its chilly imagery and sepulchral overtones, Winterkill is a warm, generous and welcoming collection of poems. If, like me before I read this book, you aren’t familiar with Catherine Graham’s work, this would be an excellent place to start.

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