Coteau Books - November 11, 2008 - 6 Comments
Wolf Tree by Alison Calder
Reviewed by Joanna M. Weston
Calder brings together the human and natural world with ease. There is an almost seamless integration, a blurring of lines between the environment and humanity: each affects the other in some way; each inhabits the other.
This book covers a wide range of subjects, from a dead elephant to the Van Dusen gardens in Vancouver, from so-called human ‘freaks’ who were exhibited in previous centuries to a contemplation of a stone. Yet, while the range is varied, Calder maintains her view of the essential unity between her subjects.
The first section deals with the curiosities of creation, regarded now with a great deal more compassion and understanding than by previous generations and clearly so by Calder in “Bird”:
One day I’ll climb higher than you
can imagine. I’ve told no one my plan.
Only the corner of my eye can give me away.
A small fluttering thing tries to get out. (1)
She understands the longings of those kept to be looked at in zoos or exhibitions, the longing to be who they are. She captures the knowledge of Zip the half-human, half-ape who “fooled ‘em for a long time” (“Zip” 5). She knows how the exterior of Julia Pastrana, called the “Ugliest Woman in the World,” does not reflect the real Julia, who “is not as she is” (“Charles Eisenmann looks at a photograph of Julia Pastrana” 7).
It is in “The strange and incredible true story of Mary Toth…” (18-22) that Calder delves most deeply behind the scenes. “All I want is a little beauty, / a little imagination,” says Mary. She sees the small beauty of a spider’s web and wants more. So she moves into deception until she becomes “a doll now in a house / this is a cell that is an egg.” She retreats to a place where her reality cannot be found. All three — Zip, Julia Pastrana and Mary Toth — want to be treated as fully human, not as oddities but as people of value, people who have within them the spirit or spark that would fly free.
In her prose poem “Gravity (Garibaldi Park)” Calder is hiking with a friend and is interrupted by a ranger with news of a family death:
…The grey rock beneath your boots yaws open, hard mountainsides shatter, the world cants wildly. Suddenly you understand gravity, the downward pull that is not persuasion but a violence that wrenches a thing suddenly from where it was and drops it somewhere else. (27)
The news affects both her and the earth she stands on. But later in the poem, the contradiction arrives: “…boot heels trudge and trudge, grind grief and range and pain into the oblivious sky…” (27), reflecting the human rage at a seemingly unaware God. The poem conveys the moment of shock with the sense of the timelessness of the landscape, anchoring the event in solidarity and deeply felt emotion.
The panorama of the prairie brings to life not only the landscape but the people who live there, from “That prairie, she’s a boy” to the closing lines “We could drink some coffee. We could have a real good talk” (“Sexing the prairie” 65).
Prairie people get together to talk of the many things, Calder suggests:
…railways, towns, churches, brothels, schools, ploughs, oxen,
…tornados, droughts, floods, hail, thunderstorms, lightning strikes,
blizzards, frostbite, isolation, mosquitos, …
…This prairie was built on the principle of the grid, or rather the square. Lemon squares, chocolate squares, date, turtle, buttertart, vanilla dessert, cherry cheesecake… (65-6)
And we are in the world of Fowl Suppers, Potluck dinners, Family Get-togethers, anniversaries, birthdays — any excuse to gather, share food, and talk.
Calder’s words and images flow easily without shock or surprise but with an underlying precision that illuminates the immediate subject and the world we live in. Hers is a poetry of intense humanity that connects to all other living creatures.