Madeline Sonik’s 2008 collection Stone Sightings is a lovely read. Although similar themes of love, displacement and outsiderness, as well as images from nature and mythology are present in each piece, there are no official sections or separations between groups of poems on different topics. However, the book can be roughly broken into three sections. Unofficially, the first third of the book deals with home, family and the day-to-day. The second has more to do with people, both real and mythological. The last section is less unified, but has much to do with place, both specific and general, physical and epistemological. Across each of these broad themes there are fantastic moments in which Sonik allows the reader entry into her particular, sad and beautiful world.
Sonik works extremely well with the turnaround—she begins a poem with one image or structure, then flips around in a totally surprising and exciting way to create a delicious and personal reading experience. The first poem, “Stone Age,” begins with a mundane evening at home between a couple and their daughter (the family structure in these poems is generally heterosexual and nuclear, which may be a reflection of Sonik’s own family, although I try to be wary of assuming the poem’s speaker to be the poet him or herself, but there is something so personal about these poems, it is hard not to imagine they are spoken by Sonik herself). The image of “four hotdogs in a chrome pan / four buns, two knives / half a pound of butter” (1), becomes “The Cradle of Civilization.” Between sleep and waking, this cradle has two meanings: the simple legacy of hot dogs and the natural imagery of the speaker’s dream: “of stampeding bison, / wild elk, the charcoal etch of antlers on loud white / stucco (1). The mixing of these two time-and-place signifiers, from the over-processed human to the unbridled natural is, lucky for the reader, characteristic of Sonik’s style.
The second poem in this collection is by far my favourite. “Satellite” is dedicated to Sonik’s daughter Madeline, and it uses the turnaround in a different way. The first half of the poem is in couplets, with the speaker, a mother, lamenting the loss of innocence in her relationship with her daughter. She thinks about “when I could answer all your questions / and always you would answer me” (2). Although I am not a mother, and have never been accused of being very maternal, I felt along with the speaker the sadness that sometimes comes with change. Then right in the middle, the couplets are visibly disrupted by a four-line-stanza. And halfway through this long stanza, the speaker changes. It’s no longer the mother thinking about her daughter, but the daughter thinking about her mother. While changing only the pronouns, Sonik continues the poem in mirror image with “and always I would answer you / when you could answer all my questions” (2). It’s beautiful and delightful that the poem can do so much with so little: the whole poem is only 16 lines, 8 of which are nearly perfect repeats.
There is sadness and harshness in many of these poems, whether it be a mother breaking a child’s baby bottle when she gets too old in “God bless the women who are merciless,” a woman too affected by the horrors of history to leave her house as in “Cause and Effect,” or someone with OCD as in “She scrubs her hands,” who
…sings, checks the stove,
checks the door, washes her hands
counts the vowels and syllables
the notes that endlessly play
and then feels compelled to do these things all over again.
The second unofficial section begins with “Word Work,” where the speaker labours in a strawberry field to earn enough money to pay her way to the West coast from Ontario. These place poems move mainly from Windsor to Vancouver, again places that are familiar to the poet herself. These are city poems and nature poems, and they are also mythic poems with evocative moments. When Sonik talks about returning as an adult to a shrinking park she remembers from her youth, and about how she “can’t forget this small green rapture” (34), I strongly identify with this loss of a childhood place.
There is violence in some of these place poems; they seethe with death and decay. In “Slack Farm” looters drill “promiscuous shovels/ through inacquiescent earth” (40). This raping of the land involves the taking of precious artifacts
...of people who believedearth/ and spiritcould never be divided who believedland/ and peoplecould never be sold.
The most violent moment in the collection comes in “Vivisection in a Rwandan Orphanage,” which is geographically so far from the rest of the poems that it almost doesn’t fit with the others—except that it shares some of those themes of loss and displacement evident elsewhere. This piece deals with the past tragedy of the genocide: the speaker begins by discussing her injuries, since “they have cut me,” and continues discussing exploitation by “rich Americans” for whom pictures are drawn of a lost family.
The final section contains mentions of many women from myth and symbol, with origins as wide as Peter Pan to the bible and traditional mythology, and then in real life, from Vancouver to an American nursing home. Notably, Sonik discusses Wendy Darling, wishing she could fly, her
Nightdress swelling passionate
ruffles around her foxy red tail
exposing her sharp
berry bush ridicule
There is a great poem about a real-life person, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who was the first American woman with a flight license. Many of the women depicted share with Wendy and Anne Lindbergh a trailblazing quality: they come into a world populated by men and make room for themselves. Like the family and place poems in this collection, these are evocative and highly personal. Although the women of these poems are fictional or historical, their desires to fly, or the “islands breaking” inside of them, can be easily identified with.
Seeming a little out of place, in the last third of the collection is “Buchanan Tower,” a poem about one of the least beautiful or poetic buildings I have ever seen. The tower is found in the middle of campus at the University of British Columbia, where Sonik and I have both been students. I was surprised that anyone could give such a heavy concrete monstrosity such delicate treatment in beautiful lilting couplets. This piece reflects Sonik’s ability to find beauty in unlikely places and reflect it skilfully.
This collection is lovely. Whether a reader is approaching it from beginning to end and getting a sense of Sonik’s complete world, or opening randomly for a slice of her delicious imagery, Stone Sightings is well worth a look.
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.