Reviewed by Michelle Miller
Seven into Even, Jacqueline Turner’s new collection of mainly prose-poetry, is a compelling read. The pieces here are considered to be a reworking of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a book I should admit that I studied eagerly in university in a “Religion in Literature” course. Whether you’re as geeky as me, you slept through your 18th century lit survey course, or you never went to college but like poetry, you can choose to appreciate or ignore the Spenser connection in most places. Despite her high brow literary interests, Turner does well to write poetry for everyone.
Because the book jacket itself refers to Seven into Even as being explicitly tied to The Faerie Queene, I worry that some readers may be turned off unnecessarily by this association, since one does not have to have any interest in the classics to enjoy these poems. Turner does give several explicit mentions of Spenser’s work, sometimes in terms of side notes, as in “These Counterfeits”: “And maske her wounded mind, both did and sayd / Full many things doubtful to be wayd” (73). Generally, these mentions appear much more accessibly in description, as shown in “thursday”:
saying something like
because you are queen that sounds ridiculous when you play it back in
your morning mind knowing it came from reading spenser the night before. (47)
The main themes shared by The Faerie Queene and Seven into Even are those of free will and predetermination. According to my old professor, Spenser believed in predetermination himself, but Turner argues for the Catholic thesis that we make our own choices, and then we suffer for them. In “Strong Compulsion” she writes, “Before your chest aches with the want of what you cannot have / Because you simply didn’t choose it” (5). These philosophical underpinnings involve the playful and intelligent deconstruction of appearance and reality, particularly expressed in Books 6 and 7, where “you don’t quite look like the picture you posted” (65) and
the we of community
hollow where one decorative
stone lies missing an echo
of act or act act act. (56)
This philosophical grounding gives Turner a great deal of space to deconstruct person and place, social reality, and — most notably and successfully — relationships. With great skill, Turner dissects the small, perfect and mundane moments of everyday life for the truth beneath the surface. This is very fine observational poetry, written with class, bravery and style.
At first glance, Seven into Even appears to be a collection of ten books of seven poems, each of which have seven lines. This is an awfully gimmicky preposition, and when, at the start of Book 2, I realized that this structure gives way to seven stream-of-consciousness pieces of varying lengths, I was relieved and able to go back and appreciate the first seven as the tight, clever and interesting poems they are. The poems in each of the books follow a similar structure and theme, lending a small-scale cohesiveness that works on both an individual and collective level, mainly because Turner is such a wonderful wordsmith who always manages to draw the reader’s rapt attention. Favouring the second person pronoun, she forces us into her poems. For example, in “Disguise” she brings us in: “you attend small ruptures when the routine of the day breaks apart you / celebrate small interludes the sound of drums being played in a garage” (13).
I believe Turner’s talents are best displayed in Book 5, where each poem relates the events and tonal quality of each day of the week. “sunday” depicts a family dinner,
when everyone’s laughing around the
tables pushed together your mother rushing to get all the food on the
table sit down mom someone will inevitably say but she won’t until it’s
all there (43)
On Monday “there always seems to be school” (44); Tuesday is “never a good day for reading” (45); on Wednesday it rains, and “plastic raincoats suffocate your skin” (46). On Thursday the mundanity of the work week begins to end, and we see the speaker in bed with a lover: “are you really happy I am now you whispered” (47). Friday, a poetic display of relieved inebriation,
pours me a thick glass of red wine clink as anxiety sinks away pour me
another and we start to talk faster and we feel freer to say whatever
comes to mind and without stopping another and we grow flirtatious. (48)
And finally Saturday “sleeps in no question” (49).
“Book 7 or Mutability” features an excellent meditation on the female body, intertexted with sections from The Faerie Queene. But don’t worry, because you don’t have to get Spenser to get the poems, which are self-aware critical reflections on compulsory slimness and the chronic sexualization of women’s bodies. Turner warns:
careful: you’re sewing a complex sexual tapestry
knitting a dilemma
cross stitching pornography
weaving a complex web. (75)
I really enjoyed Turner’s poems. Having just moved to Vancouver where she has spent time living, I even had a teary moment in “Suspended Dreadfully”:
or the beach or why
sometimes a conversation about a friend with another friend reveals
how you may have misjudged someone else and now you understand
that it takes longer in Vancouver to make friends. (15)
If I have a complaint, it is only that there is so much poetry here. The collection seems more like a collection and a half than one on its own. The first seven books are entitled Books 1-7, followed by “Bay,” “Queen(e)sland,” and “the history of sexuality”. Partway through “Bay,” I flipped to the back to make sure this wasn’t a Greatest Hits collection. While the poems in “Bay” and “Queen(e)sland” are strong in and of themselves, they don’t have the same feeling as others in the collection, and they deal a lot more with the complexity of ‘place,’ the joys and stresses of being an outsider and the ownership of public property than they do with personal relationships, free will and the seven deadly sins. Even their geographic setting is different: the early poems explicitly take place in Western Canada where Turner lives, but these two are about Australia, where Turner served as poet-in-residence at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Brisbane. In “Fortitude Valley” she explores these new issues:
a couple asks is this central station
no it’s Brunswick I tell them thinking
people asking me where to go a
good sign of fitting in
although my accent might
have been a surprise. (90-91)
I would have suggested that Turner save these poems for a different collection, which — after reading this one — I would gladly have sought out. The blurb on the book jacket claims that Turner “undoes the distinction between high and low art with an exciting series of linguistic collisions.” And it’s true. These poems are extremely intelligent and yet totally accessible. They are certainly well worth getting your hands on, whether you love high brow verse or edgy contemporary poetry. In this (slightly long) collection Turner manages to deliver both.
Michelle Miller is a queer-feminist writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Born and raised in Ontario, Michelle is trying to get used to life on the west coast, which is easy in the sun and impossible in the rain.