I, Nadja and Other Poems

I, Nadja and Other Poems

By Bert Almon

A review of I, Nadja And Other Poems by Susan Elmslie

Published on October 1, 2006

I, Nadja And Other Poems
Susan Elmslie

Brick Books
$18
paper
143pp
1-894078-53-5

Traditionally, first poetry collections are slim volumes, and so prematurely published that their authors later try to buy or steal all the surviving copies. Susan Elmslie has published a substantial first book, and has shown that formalism can thrive in Canada.

Her I, Nadja uses forms like the glosa (which was more or less invented by P. K. Page), the sonnet, and the pantoum. The pantoum is a repetitive form adopted from Malayan poetics: the second and fourth line of each stanza form the first and third lines of the following stanza. Back in 1971, in a textbook called The Practice of Poetry, Robin Skelton observed that “there are very few pantoums in English.” But this exotic plant has spread successfully from the hothouses of poetry manuals and has naturalized in Canadian gardens. Elmslie uses the form in a long poem about life in the asylum where Nadja, the central figure in André Breton’s narrative of the same name, was eventually confined. The obsessive and repetitive nature of the poetic form mirrors the obsessive and repetitive routines of life in the sanatorium. The “I, Nadja” sequence is the core of the book. It explores the life of a mentally ill woman Breton met on a Paris street, and with whom he had a brief affair. Breton’s book, a key text in French Surrealism, is very troubling in the issues it raises about the exploitation of the voiceless in the service of art. Breton’s account of the affair is known to be inaccurate and self-serving. Elmslie had carried out profound research on Nadja and on Breton’s circle, and she uses it to create a powerful portrait of the disturbed woman. Most of the poems are from Nadja’s point of view, but some are written from the standpoint of Breton and his associates. The sequence is deeply moving, and the absolute formal mastery intensifies the effect.

The rest of the book is uneven. The confessional poems in the opening section are less interesting than the sections that follow. Elmslie is at her best imagining the lives of other people – George Sand, Marie Curie, Nadja – rather than in talking about mother-daughter relationships. Some of the later sequences – witty takes on school subjects like geometry, and a set on chairs designed by famous architects – show close observation but not much inwardness. However, “Four Postcard,” a glosa early in the book, cuts deep. The four stanzas of the poem, with their final lines repeated from the epigraph by Adrienne Rich, consider love in its absence. The salute to tradition in the poem gives it a special resonance: this glosa is based on Rich’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” which was itself inspired by John Donne’s great work with the same title. Elmslie is at home with tradition and willing to add to it. mRb

Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.

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