Sunday, January 5, 2014

Review: Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, by Catherine Graham

Is it possible to employ the words “hotly anticipated” when referring to a collection of poetry? If so, I would certainly use them to describe my feelings toward Toronto poet Catherine Graham’s latest collection (with its albeit long-winded title), Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects. It isn’t just that I read and favourably reviewed her last collection of poems, Winterkill, back in 2010. I also knew that this new book was shaping up to be a collection of glosas in tribute to Canada’s own P.K. Page (a master of the form) as well as to the late Irish poet Dorothy Molloy.

Graham is an accomplished glosa writer in her own right; probably equal to Page herself. (For a good sample of Graham’s chops with the form, check out the summer 2012 issue of The Malahat Review, which includes three of her glosas.) But Her Red Hair … has evolved into something different: it sheds the glosa structure—what Graham refers to as “scaffolding” in her foreword—in favour of incorporating swatches of Molloy’s lines from specific poems into more free-verse style works. The results were, I must admit, a bit jarring at first: the Molloy passages come in italics and are often included in mid thought, or even mid image, in Graham’s poems. But once my eye acclimatized to this approach, the book grew exhilarating as it revealed a sly and dark call and response between the two writers as poem after poem unfolded.

It would be tempting to say that Graham is committing an act of ventriloquism here with Molloy’s verse, but I think the opposite is as much true. That is, Molloy’s lines “use” Graham’s, as much as Graham’s uses Molloy’s, to create sharp, pungent images. In some poems, this interstitial conglomeration is overt and intense. Take, for example, the pieces “Winter Broccoli” and “You Are Dead to Me,” both of which borrow flora or plantation images from Molloy and infuse them into the emotional life of Graham’s lines. In the former, she writes:

Oh, but the purrs of a pub in strings.
His voice slips through my sixth sense.
Medicinal split between this and this.
And he is so real. And I am so normal.

Purple hearts sprouting flowers in hedgerows carry
the glisten of sex as the night blows stars to deafen
our ears and we are safe beside the sea’s deep
negotiations, unseen in the forests of our own taking.

And in the latter she writes:

Now I remember
the sweet name of things:

roses, carnations, 
camellias, begonias.

No more brick of you
to weigh me down in the cellar

where darkness shot roots
through the stems of my ankles.

In both instances, there is an unmistakable spark of metaphor, a series of images that slide both forward and backward when forming their comparisons. The duality of the voice is deliberate and not meant to be glossed over. That echo of Molloy’s imagery in Graham’s is intended to sit at the forefront of the piece.

Other poems use slicker, more subtler inclusions—but are just as effective. An example would be “Peas & Barbies” a light, comic poem about two girls ogling a naked Barbie and using the much-maligned vegetable to create nipples on a mound of mashed potato. Here, the Molloy lines are more gently deployed, their metaphoric contributions kept in the background:

We said it at the same time.

I made a doll of mashed potato
with nipple-peas on my plate.

Take charge and split. 
Witless move. Nana’s looking.

Don’t play with your food says the line
in her lips that melts the wizard in mine.

She blinks the nippled world away.
I give the world too much.

Fork more food in your mouth
and keep your eyes shut;

be an empty-headed thing 
with shredded carrot hair.

You can see a similar strategy in the poem “Pail and Shovel,” where Molloy’s voice moves more fluidly through Graham’s lines, contributing to—rather than forcing the reader to pause upon—their cadences. We see it begin in the third stanza:

You sit for hours beneath the dripping taps
in the white and narrow bath trying
to dilute your father’s neglect.

and continues forward, with a kind of canny propulsion, through the later verses of the poem:

Salt in the water won’t
lessen the evidence.
What makes a father leave?

There is no solution. 
With hands flapping, water lapping,
a letter leads to a buried memory.

There’s not just energy here in the weaving together of these two poets’ lines. There is, in case you missed it, a wonderful pun on “salt in the water” and “solution”, which Graham and Molloy collaborate on, collectively. Brilliant.

Those of you who have read Graham’s earlier works will be familiar with her favourite reoccurring trope—that of a quarry, a place of both danger and exploration. Rest assured that Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects contributes to this pattern: the book includes a poem called “Quarry” as well as several references in other poems to this kind of stone pit. The unifying trope is one of the great charms of Graham’s collections.

But readers should also prepare themselves for a book that is darker than Graham’s previous outing. This collection has other, more unsettling preoccupations: that of mortality, of the threat of impermanence and the vicissitudes of time. The book ends, I believe, on what can only be a premonition. From “There is a Stir, Always”:

“If I hold this body up the snow will grow inside me
and the winter of my cells will flake
into tiny crystals like six figure gods
I rise to the cold
to take my place among the fragile stars,
and sleep.

These lines belong to Graham alone. And hopefully the voice captured therein will return from its sleep to grace us with yet another collection, a new and finely wrought reliquary of her rich and generous imagination.


  1. Beautifully written review, Incisive and intelligent. Plus, I learned a new word: reliquary.

    ~Ibi Kaslik