by Rishma Dunlop
Inanna Publications and Education Inc., 2008; 76 pp (30 pages of artwork); $22.95
Reviewed from unbound galleys.
Coordinator of the Creative Writing Program at York University, Rishma Dunlop is an acclaimed and award-winning poet. She has authored or edited several collections including The Body of My Garden (2003), Reading Like a Girl (2004), Metropolis (2005), and Ink: An International Anthology of Poems on Mothering (2007), among others. Her latest offering, White Album, is a unique juxtaposition of poetry and art, playing host as it does to the breathtaking and sensual work of BC artist, Suzanne Northcott, whose paintings both complement and highlight Dunlop’s verse. But the volume’s interdisciplinarity goes one step further in its inclusion of a unique treatment of music.
Set up in four sections to mimic the Beatles’ four-sided White Album, each one carries the same numbered sections as the songs on the album. In this format, Dunlop explores one young woman’s life, from her birth in India to her youth and adulthood in Canada, experienced from the 1950s onward, during a time of great cultural and political change. Dunlop works with issues at the heart of this nation’s cultural consciousness and attempts to explore how these contribute to and/or form an individual identity. For those who identify points in time with music, this collection will be a journey of nostalgia; Dunlop capably evokes a longing for the past through her identification with the music of the era.
Dunlop opens her collection with a prefatory offering called “Driving Home with Chet” that sets the stage for the musical interludes that will be heard throughout her poetry. Chet is jazz singer and trumpeter Chet Baker, against whose songs she pits scenes of the “every day”—“slate roofs, scatter-shots of sounds,” “cry of sirens, construction cranes, kids playing at dusk” neatly juxtaposed with notes of music: “as the horn comes into languor, slow notes suffusing the groin”; “metronomed scales of piano practice, staccato of footsteps”; and, “refrigerator hum, the din of phones.” With “Chet’s last notes/long vibrato shaping pain into order,/in the last crease of light/thin as a knife,/a wish”, Dunlop achieves a rhythm in her final stanza that recalls Langston Hughes’ “The Trumpet Player” and its lines: “Upon what riff the music slops/Its hypodermic needle/To his soul”. This is a promising introduction to a collection that mostly delivers.
“Journey” chronicles the family’s migration from India after it gained independence from Britain in 1947. The poem makes reference to the many Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs who were killed in the ethnic cleansing that accompanied that migration. Dunlop emphasizes leaving the “warm palm of empire/to its furthest frost-bitten fingertips”—Canada, no doubt. From here, the subject and her family embark upon a new cultural journey that results in this collection’s infusion of music and musical references.
“Naming” focuses on the importance of family, and the subject’s father’s love of gardening. Dunlop uses rich nomenclature here—the common names of flowers as well as their more formal appellations, alongside lyrics from Jimmie Rodgers’ “English Country Garden.” This drowns the reader in velvet sounds such as heart’s ease, flox, meadowsweet, lady smocks and hollyhocks, foxgloves and snowdrops. Dunlop is expert at arresting her readers with the sensuality of sound.
But she is political too, using verse to capture the power of current events and their broader historical and cultural significance. In “Mission Apollo,” she describes social gatherings and their “perfumed coat piles in master bedrooms” against the backdrop of Cold War experiments with “McNamara’s voice babbling,/the naked napalmed girl running/down the highway, skin in ribbons.” In “Libretto,” she evokes another such moment: the Klu Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama in 1963, with the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Who the scrim upon which this scene is projected. “Adagio” is written about the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” Vedran Smailovi, who, in 1992, played Albonini’s Adagio in G Minor for 22 days to honour the 22 who were killed by mortar fire in the city’s marketplace as they lined up for bread. These poems are both stark and warm, infused with music that make their messages poignant rather than cold and harsh.
Other less political poems are equally powerful, such as “Hush” about a woman who is “slow to love” the man who fathers her child. In her everyday tasks of folding laundry, changing the baby’s diapers, feeding the cat and watching the backyard fill with snow, she discovers her passion for him, “sealed into cracked plaster with a kiss.” “What Begins Bitterly” is another example of such power, the height of feeling achieved with love and anger flowing through jazz notes—“in the music playing,/our living and our dying”.
In this collection of 29 poems, there were only two that didn’t fire for this reviewer: “Love Field, 1963” and “Wild Thing.” The former is the longest poem in the volume, spanning a dense four pages. The poem explores the ritual of putting on a turban and the family’s involvement in such a ritual in an adopted home and country. Considered alongside Dunlop’s other rich work, the length of the poem and its lack of lyrical language make it much less powerful. “Wild Thing,” with its use of song titles and plays on partial lyrics, seems forced—very little of the material is Dunlop’s original voice. With the emotion she can evoke, why she should rely on others?
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From Issue #51