Wet apples, White blood

Wet apples, White blood

By Bert Almon

A review of Wet Apples, White Blood by Naomi Guttman

Published on October 1, 2007

Wet Apples, White Blood
Naomi Guttman

McGill-Queen's University Press
$18.95
paper
80pp
978-0-7735-3245=8

Naomi Guttman’s Wet Apples, White Blood is her first book since 1991, when her debut, Waiting for Winter, won the QWF A.M. Klein Award. The poems in the first and fourth section are generally good. They are well-crafted (a term of faint but real praise), some on personal or family themes, some on historical ones. The glosa, a form that Canadian poets just have to try nowadays, is represented by “For Rent,” which finds its base text in Rilke.

Guttman’s book comes wonderfully alive in the two middle sections, both of which deal with lactation, the production of milk to nurture offspring. The poems in the title cycle consider lactation from the perspectives of myth, natural history, and folklore. The phrase “white blood” comes from none of these sources: the poet cites a woman who keeps a fruit stand and calls milk by that epithet. Wet apples are, of course, the breasts. Poems in the cycle deal with Hera’s reluctant nursing of Herakles, with Mary and the Christ Child, with King Tut’s wet nurse, with the primitive milk production of the female platypus, and with the curdled milk of maternal kindness in Medea (who revenged herself on her betraying husband by killing their children). Folklore about what nursing women should and should not do is treated in “Instructions for the Child in the Womb.” The best poem in the section is “At the Tomb of King Tut’s Wet Nurse.” In a way it supplements Shelley’s great poem “Ozymandias,” in which the image of a vanished pharaoh suggests that the sculptor’s work can outlast the vanity of kings. Guttman’s poem tells us that a recently discovered carving of Tutankhamun with his wet nurse conveys a humanity not found in the depiction of the pharaoh’s “counselors, generals and slaves.” The nurse, Maia, was “the servant who fed the body of a god,” a phrase that seems to come from a video produced by National Geographic. She had her own lavish tomb, a rare example of a woman exalted for her domestic role. Guttman has created an Egyptian Madonna, and the figure of this Madonna is profoundly human. The following cycle, “Galactopoiesis,” moves the book from myth and natural history to the personal. The title refers to the making (“poesis”) of milk (“galacto”). The sequence tells the story of a sick child, hospitalized but still nursed by his mother. The poems are almost all in the three-line stanzas that Guttman handles with flexibility and grace. The language is a poised mixture of the clinical and emotive. These fine poems are a complement to the impersonal poetry of the cycle in the previous section. After 16 years, Naomi Guttman is back, better than ever. mRb

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

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