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Frontenac House - March 08, 2006 - 0 Comments

Between the Silences

Between the Silences by Diane Buchanan

Reviewed by Helen Zisimatos

Between the Silences (Frontenac House 2005), by Diane Buchanan, is devoted to courts and the legal system. With an echo of Foucault’s relations of power in the background, the book alerts us to the many different relationships between society and its members. The book, as a whole, is a sharp portrayal of various court cases, ranging from youth trials to family trials to murder trials to mental health cases.

Between the Silences, by Diane Buchanan, is a book devoted to courts and the legal system. With an echo of Foucault’s relations of power in the background, the book alerts us to the many different relationships between society and its members. The book, as a whole, is a sharp portrayal of various court cases, ranging from youth trials, family trials, murder trials and mental health cases.

Between the Silences begins with a representation of the courthouse as a kind of living entity with two mouths, two heads and three arteries. This “living” aspect of the courtroom suggests that, although it is an institution of law and order, it is “where the heart sits” (11), at the centre of society. But as a cold institution, one tends to find little heart in the court system. Things are not familiar, and those accused become “nobod[ies]” (17). The cold legality of the legal system is only surpassed by the cold violence of the different crimes.

Buchanan writes, “I cannot breathe. The courtroom is so full of pain” (29), in reference to incest in the poem “Prognosis.” In a poem regarding divorce, she says, “Death doesn’t always do the parting” (61). With such lines, the book encourages us to look inward to a deeper meaning, and asks us to question why the youths are so defiant, or why there is so much suffering. “There seems to be no common denominator for young offenders” (28), she writes, and, by extension, no common denominator, in general, for all the pain and abuse that occurs in society.

In the poem “Little Girl Lost,” Buchanan captures some of this injustice:

The little girl crawls out
from under the tables,
takes Daddy’s hand
then reaches across
that hostile space
to grab Mommy’s hand
and hangs there lost
in the uncertainty
of the in-between.
(53)

 

This uncertainty “between” father and mother speaks of the larger uncertainty between good and bad, or even life and death. It suggests that the space between is the unspoken silence of not knowing where one belongs. The book is aptly titled and reflects the theme of human versus society, and society’s endless tribulations and inability of its members to “speak.”

In the last section, entitled “With Due Care and Attention,” Buchanan presents us with the excellent poem, “The Judge’s Robe,” wherein she says, “It is from that robe that we seek direction” (69). She admits that “there’s power in a judge’s robe” (69), but that this power is not omnipotent. Although the judge has the power to convict, or to liberate, he is still, underneath the robe, just an ordinary person. Buchanan makes the strong statement, by quoting Shakespeare, that mercy is at the heart of the judge’s role in the legal system. And this ties the book back to the beginning where the courtroom is seen as possessing a heart. It may not always protect the members of society, but it should be merciful in the light of so much social chaos and injustice.

Buchanan offers good insights into the mechanics of the courthouse by presenting us poems on various cases, and writes poems in different forms so that the reader is not bored, but interested. Although one can make the claim that this book objectifies the people who suffer, it, nevertheless, gives a good, inside perspective on legal relations.

Helen Zisimatos has published poetry in journals across Canada and the US. Her poetry received honourable mention in The National Magazine Awards. She is editor of the poetry journal Vallum, and lives in Montreal.

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