Review by Jenna Butler.
Jaguar Rain: The Margaret Mee Poems is a sensual feast for the image-starved reader. Poet Jan Conn realizes the lush landscape of Brazil in vivid detail through the eyes of artist Margaret Mee, imbuing the poems with a vivid tapestry of scent, sound and colour. At the same time, Conn’s work is subtly underwritten by an awareness of the volatile nature of the landscape and of the painter/poet’s place in it.
Conn gives the reader no preamble; the leap into the Brazilian landscape is immediate and alienating, much as Mee found her initial forays into the forest to be. Not only are the surroundings quite different from anything the speaker in the poems has encountered before, but the contrast between alien and naturalized is suddenly reversed. Within a few short pages, the speaker comes to recognize that she has entered another culture expecting to find it alien to her, when she, in fact, is the stranger. Conn’s masterful hand at creating tone and subtly shading imagery allows her to reveal this dilemma early on in the book. This is reflected in the poem “The House of the Tapir,” where the forbidding description of the house itself reflects upon the dangers of entering a foreign landscape:
Into the House of the Tapir no one goes. Woven into its walls,
nightblack and amber motifs become anaconda gliding along a
branch of water, jaguar loping across the savannah. The shaman
waits at the entrance, in a dream or trance.
It is not merely the danger of entering such a landscape that Conn, through Mee, considers; rather, it is the heightened danger of being absorbed into the surroundings and being unable to leave intact.
Conn is very aware that, even as the landscape is utterly different from what Mee knows, it is also undergoing self-alienating changes in the form of contact with outsiders. This is evident in the poem “First Contact: Scissors” (23), wherein a Brazilian tribe gives up one of its traditions and much of its land in exchange for three pairs of scissors. This consciousness of the changes taking place within the landscape and the indigenous people themselves is evident throughout the book; the concept that alienation is internally as well as externally imposed.
It is the description and imagery, however, that truly set Jaguar Rain apart. Aided by Mee’s sketches of a number of the orchids she encountered in Brazil, Conn’s language possesses a richness and texture intensely suited to her subject matter:
In a small room with flint-blue walls, a woman
studies a rare orchid, its Nile-green leaves
propped open, lustrous. Smelling of damp,
her sketchbook opens beside her.
(“The Rain Holds Its Breath” 27)
There is a magic inherent in Conn’s words and in Mee’s illustrations; intimations of the otherworldly in a landscape redolent with the unfamiliar. Conn, through Mee, hints that there is a fine dividing line that holds one back from acknowledging the mysterious nature of a place populated by reclusive tribespeople, exotic plant life, and dangerous, vibrant animals. Stepping back from this dividing line is what keeps foreigners foreign; yet stepping over this line demands facing the very real possibility that one will become too much a part of this beautiful, violent landscape and become indistinguishable from it.
The form of a number of the poems in the collection reflects the lush, unbridled nature of Conn’s language and Mee’s artwork. Poems such as “For the Giant Anteater” (28) and, later, “Small Pink Nebulae” (38) and “Fish Leap toward the Moon” (58) take on almost a ghazal form; each line is able to stand alone, saturated with imagery and meaning. Taken together, the lines paint an exquisite picture of place.
Conn’s choice of imagery, too, is carefully calculated to reveal Mee’s journey to find a locus for herself in such a foreign landscape:
Days I watch wasps
construct paper nests like miniature pots,
the hinged lids ingenious. When the jaguar appears
I am nearly fearless: on the river bank I have discovered
the rare lemon-yellow beauty, Oncidium cebolleta. My terror now
is leaf-cutting ants. If they find the wooden racks I’ve built
for my orchids and bromeliads, they’ll devour my life.
Flawlessly, Conn reveals the way in which major concerns for safety and familiarity all but vanish in the face of day-to-day living in such a vast landscape. Conn leaves the reader with the sense that this is a survival tactic: in the face of a vast wilderness where death is an ever-present threat, to dwell on mortality is to attempt to remove oneself from reality. The only way in which one can go on, and, indeed, the only way in which an outsider can hope to truly experience the culture and surroundings of the Brazilian forests, is to simply contend with the daily concerns of living. Death, when and how it arrives, is beyond any one person’s hands in this landscape. Mee’s acceptance of this reality quickly becomes evident:
In the dark hollows at the base of the tree
the bushmaster, sleek and cool
glides through the undergrowth,
King of the Amazon.
His bite is fatal. What I want is nothing to him.
(“King of the Amazon” 40)
There is exceptional beauty in the Brazilian landscape, but negotiating it has an accepted price. Conn returns to this reality throughout the collection: incredible beauty superimposed upon intense hardship.
Within this landscape of contrasts, Mee faces a dilemma of her own. The landscape has a reductive ability to break people down into their component desires and fears:
I thought I resembled a flower,
silk, raw silk, but unraveling, petal
after petal. Down to the core.
(“Mountain of Mist and Cloud” 45)
Mee begins to question her presence in the forest, and to wonder whether she is truly in search of exotic orchids or something deeper, something internal.
At the same time, the people around Mee are facing identity issues of their own. In “Pico da Neblina” (46), Rafael, a young man, renounces the new Christian God after the death of his father. Because the new God could not save Rafael’s father, the young man is unable to reconcile himself to the worship of this deity. Instead, grieving, he returns to the spirits and tribal deities he grew up with. He becomes haunted, not only by the ghost of his father, but by the burden of tribal history he carries in the face of the new religion being transmitted into the Brazilian forests by foreigners. Conn, like Mee, is extremely cognizant of the inroads made by the religion of foreign explorers and missionaries into the traditional life and history of the forest tribes.
Indeed, while the book is partly a celebration of the beauty and richness of the Brazilian forests, it is also a way of grieving for that which has been taken or has faded. In “The Santa Casa” (48), Conn explores, through imagery, a variety of types of mourning: a room redolent of the suffering of an epidemic, the panic of wild animals trapped by foreign visitors, a subtle loss of history as old ways of life are overtaken by new, and death itself. Just as individual people die during the course of the book, so do traditional methods of living; just as mourning fails to retrieve lost loved ones, no amount of invocation will bring the old ways back.
What can one do, then, Conn (and Mee) seem to suggest, but go on? It is the struggle that holds the value, in the face of everything that opposes it. If one sees only dark and decay, then that is the way the future will turn. Survival in the Brazilian forests is in the minutiae; in the beauty of the plant and animal life, in the security of simple routines. After all, death is omnipresent in this landscape.
Instead of fostering a sense of dismay in the reader because of the death and destruction inherent in so much of the book, Conn skillfully manages to unseat despair with the creation of a strong sense of hope. The poems in this collection are underwritten with a wry sense of humour, a mixture of Conn’s and Mee’s observations. Yes, the poems possess an intense consciousness of mortality and transience, the awareness of cycles in nature. Above all, though, this collection possesses an incredible sense of the possibility of renewal:
Here, the spirits live close to the ground, in the coati
with his marvelous silver-and-black-striped tail, in the curious
waistcoat of the armadillo. And at the end of every day,
the wind and the roar of the rapids carry everything away.
(“The Curious Waistcoat of the Armadillo” 50)
Jenna Butler is an educator and poet who makes her home in Edmonton. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including CBC’s Alberta Anthology, and has been widely published in journals, anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.