When the past is elusive and historical characters stay frustratingly inscrutable, poetry can often step up to fill in the gaps. Canada has a rich tradition of rendering historical figures through the art of a poem, and it often involves deliberate fragmentation, elliptical imagery, non-linear narrative, or acts of pure imagination to tell us something new about a recognizable character.
Rachel Lebowitz, in her 2006 collection Hannus, takes a slightly different approach to this tradition. Her subject, while not exactly famous, is someone she “knows” intimately well through the lore and artifacts passed down through her family: her great grandmother, Ida Basilia Hannus, a Finnish-Canadian suffragist living in the isolated island community of Sointula in British Columbia in the early part of the 20th century. The community is founded as a kind of socialist utopia within turn-of-the-century Canada, and Ida is a complex character struggling to balance her sharp political beliefs with her role as a mother to children she’s had by two separate men.
Through a scrapbook approach that includes letters, newspaper articles, photographs and other ephemera, as well some beautifully crafted straight-up poems, Lebowitz provides us with a refreshingly lyrical and accessible portrait of a historical persona. The key to unlocking the mysteries behind Ida’s tale is, for me at least, the extensive family tree included at the beginning of the book. This delineation of relationships and timelines is paramount not only for keeping the characters straight but also for opening up the deeper implications of their interactions with one another and the historical context in which they live. Hannus is as much a tale about Sointula’s “failure” with socialism as it is about Ida herself, and the fact that Lebowitz braids these two elements together in a linear way does a lot to make the book a compelling read.
If I had one criticism – not that it is one, really – it’s that we don’t necessarily get enough examples of Lebowitz’s own verse in every section. This is a strange thing to say about a poetry collection that totals some 170+ pages, but I sometimes felt like the ephemera was crowding out the poetry in certain places. There is no doubt that Lebowitz has some serious chops – she is a writer we should be paying attention to – but I did long to see even more of what she’s capable of. Thankfully, the scuttlebutt is that she has another book on the way, so no worries there.
Here are some examples of other “poetic renderings” I’ve enjoyed in the past.
king’s(mere), by Nathan Dueck (Turnstone, 2004) – about our kookiest Prime Minister to date, William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Tom Three Persons, by Yvonne Trainer (Frontenac House, 2002) – about the fabled First Nations rodeo star.
Bloody Jack, by Dennis Cooley (Turnstone, 1984) – about the Manitoban outlaw John Krafchenko.
The “Province House” section of Guesswork, by Jeffery Donaldson (Goose Lane Editions, 2011) – about Sir John A. Macdonald. My full review.