Out to Dry in Cape Breton

Out to Dry in Cape Breton

By Bert Almon

A review of Out To Dry In Cape Breton by Anita Lahey

Published on October 1, 2006

Out To Dry In Cape Breton
Anita Lahey

Véhicule Press (Signal Editions)
$16
paper
79pp
1-55065-209-5

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

In Out to Dry in Cape Breton, she writes pantoums (a pantoum is a repetitive form adopted by Malayan poetics: the second and fourth line of each stanza form the first and third lines of the following stanza) and she has even revived ottava rima, a form that goes all the way back to Bocaccio and is best known in English as the form for Byron’s Don Juan. Lahey is one of those poets (Christine Wisenthal is another) who can use housework to examine both domestic life and feminist issues. Who would have thought that brilliant poetry could use hanging out laundry as a focus, as Lahey does in the first section of her book? Of course, hanging out laundry now is a rare activity: we know right away that she is writing about people who don’t have dryers. One poem in the section, “The Silver Buggy Handbook,” uses a shopping cart as its focus. We see the creation of the buggy in a foundry, its use in supermarkets, and then the shock: it becomes a homeless person’s receptacle for a pitiful assortment of possessions. The details in the first two-thirds of the book have the ring of authentic experience, but 16 of them are in fact based on paintings and photographs. Lahey can be added to the list of Canadian practitioners of the ekphrasis, the poem about works of art, a group with distinguished members like Shawna Lemay, Stephanie Bolster, Anne Simpson, and John Reibetanz. Some bright academic might explain this phenomenon one day.

The last third of Lahey’s collection, “Cape Breton Relative,” is a prize-winning sequence about a return to Cape Breton to visit relatives. The poems are self-deprecating, often hilariously so, with a second-person narrator that enable Lahey to look at the protagonist with some irony, though the writing appears autobiographical. The homecoming includes conversations with salty-tongued relatives, and a rather funny attempt to learn how to jig mackerel. The dark side of Cape Breton’s industrial past is revealed when the narrator shows the notorious Sydney tar ponds to a friend who has never been to Cape Breton. The viewpoint of the poem is worked beautifully: the “you” of the poems is both an insider (because of her past on the island) and an outsider (to the relatives who sense the distance created by her off-island experience). The range of poetic forms in the sequence is wide: couplets, three-line stanzas, rhymed quatrains, sonnets, four poems in ottava rima, a pantoum – and I may have failed to recognize others. The only real misstep in Out to Dry in Cape Breton is a monologue purportedly by a long distance trucker: its mixture of coarseness and high-flown language does not convince. But that is a small lapse in a first-rate book. Lahey may not be able to jig mackerel, but she can write a poem with consummate skill. mRb

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

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