Shawna Lemay’s Blue Feast (NeWest 2005) is an intensely personal book. In the poem “Unfinished Letter,” Lemay writes:
I don’t mind.
Having someone else’s poetry course through me
leaving me scraped out and raw. (83)
And this is, essentially, how we’re supposed to come away from these poems, with a feeling of catharsis, of having been emotionally emptied. We’re supposed to share in the experiences and emotions of these poems alongside the author.
As she writes in the book’s preface:
These poems were written toward the core of sadness as a way of navigating the multiple registers that we dwell in at all times. The reader who wants these poems is the reader who understands the complicated joy that is entwined with sadness.
Lemay, I think, is acknowledging here that it can be very difficult for some readers to connect with such personal poems. In a way, they are too personal, only concerned with themselves, not written for an audience:
My stated goal
is to write the poem
that desires not to be read. (“In Readiness” 21)
Certainly many of the poems from “A Kind of Gray Dream,” the book’s first and longest section, share a kind of “self-centredness” (for lack of a better term), and the section reads a bit like a diary: self-reflexive (a writer and poems that are all too aware of themselves); abstract statements of emotion; life-in-a-nutshell summations. When Lemay breaks out of the diary, when she stops writing about writing, the poems take on a new and wonderful life of their own, wholly engaging the reader:
How is it that every animal
that has entered my heart
has always had a small white diamond on its chest –
Arabian horse, black lab, blue tabby.
Our honeymoon on Sardegna.
The blonde lab that followed us for a week
so that she seemed to own us.
Up the long paved road from the grocery store
to the villa with the red tiles
and the rosebush by the stone bench
where I read Italo Calvino while
the ants crossed my feet. (“The Blue Feast” 58)
My blackened fingertips
drop the empty matchbooks to the floor
with ever more faith.
One day I’ll be in flames. (“Waiting” 20)
One craves this kind of detail (the kind that evokes rather than tells emotion) throughout the section – and indeed throughout the entire book. In this regard, “The Clearing,” the book’s second section, becomes more grounded. The themes it takes on are still weighty – death, sorrow, love, joy, motherhood, friendship – but they begin to manifest themselves in more tangible ways:
Yes. That you are shattered
when you have a child.
And every birthday each
shattered piece of you
When she comes running
When we are apart, with every fathom.
When she gets out a bowl,
some cereal, milk.
The light enters sharp
through so many angles
when you have a child.
It is as though
you are constantly raised
above ground and let go.
The hard earth you begin to know intimately.
Such exhaustion and joy. (64)
The final section, “Daring Instruction,” deals primarily with marriage and love:
Marriage is a book and you discover
you’d earlier on underlined the wrong passages
written silly things in the margins. (“Unromantic Aspects” 94)
The poems here still move between the same self-reflective, abstract, and summative shortcomings as the earlier pieces, but perhaps this is part of the underlying struggle of getting to know – and coming to terms with – oneself. As Lemay writes:
A river, in the end
you’re known by streams
in ways you can’t know yourself.
I can’t work myself out to myself. (“How To” 101)
In workshops and writing groups, the adage “Show, don’t tell” is constantly pounded into writers, and I wonder if it is possible to graduate beyond this as a writer. If so, Blue Feastwould be the exemplar. However, I haven’t managed to get beyond the show-don’t-tell principle as a reader: I want the imagery, the narrative. Instead of listening to someone describe beautiful music, I’d rather hear the music itself. And so it is with Blue Feast: Don’t tell me how you feel; show me.