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CANADIAN LITERAture, 232, december 2017 (EXCERPT)
Mary Maxwell’s Wind Leaves Absence charts the poet’s autobiographic experiences of loss, using poetics as a means of mapping the limitations of language when it comes to the incomprehensible nature of grief. The collection is divided into three sections (Father, Brothers, and Others), but what unites the poetry is a repeated focus on language: the use, loss, and failure of words. The speaker’s father is diagnosed with dementia, and his illness slowly robs him of his ability to use and understand language. While the pen was “once an extension of his hand,” he eventually “has no words,” losing his ability to speak entirely. Similarly, the speaker’s words are described as “inadequate”; paradoxically, however, the speaker uses words to process and honour the lives she has lost. There is a tragic beauty in the way the speaker dissects her father’s increasing dementia: she attempts to find hope, lightness, or ability within him as his mind and body slip away, but these efforts are often quickly contradicted with the grim reality of his advancing condition. While she indicates that his brain is “a house, anywhere / its windows / wide open,” a few pieces later, he has “moved down the corridor of darkness . . . behind closed doors / windows that don’t open.” It is a privilege to share such deeply intimate subject matter with the poet, and though the collection repeatedly emphasizes the inability for words to capture grief, one cannot help but feel a sense of cathartic release upon finishing this collection.
Reviewed by Emily Bednarz
saskatoon starphoenix, saturday may 9, 2016
Mary Maxwell’s first book of poetry, Wind Leaves Absence (Thistledown Press, paperback, $17.95) is an elegant collection of lyrical poems about grief and loss, delivered with sensitivity and a gift for conjuring universal connections from personal memoir.
While a father and two brothers are remembered here, as well as other family members, and patients known to Maxwell from her nursing practice, readers will find themselves leaning into the stanzas, looking for our own loved ones. The promise of the first poem is sustained: “Like a bystander/ grief waits./ Takes its place at the table/an empty chair in the corner./ Hangs in the wilderness between words…”
With exquisite force, this writing, much of which has been individually published in Canadian magazines, does what poetry does best. It builds scenes and stories through sensory detail, careful rhythm, and a hard-hitting economy of words.
In Enigma, dementia is captured by the metaphor of a man “pushing his walker through wet matted leaves.” In the title poem Wind Leaves Absence the poet confides, “I dream my fingers into the earth/ dream I disturb the grave, lift/ their ashes and bone shards/ into the wind at Birch Bay/ a forest of silver bones, the wind/ the only thief I trust.” Later, in Rootbound, Maxwell acknowledges, “I heard that once you buried someone you love/that piece of earth claims you” and in “Spade,” we learn that “My heart’s edges/ have dulled with digging/ my love tamped down/ under the weight of grief.”
Yet, perhaps surprisingly, this collection is not depressing. Readers who take the time to look will find gentle humour and an arresting intellectual depth. Rich literary references and phrases looped in from other poets support the wide-angle view, reminding us that while Yeats would say the centre cannot hold, it somehow does. In Life Drawing, the “jagged line” of grief, “too brittle for his shy smile,” we see reflections of the living in the dead. A hand on a shoulder, a glimpse in the mirror, a shared understanding, these poems offer the solace of a common journey. As advised in He Closed his Eyes, “Open the window/ set the spirit free.” Direct and accessible, this work offers an entry point to grief that many readers will appreciate. Highly recommended.
— Bev Brenna, Saskatoon StarPhoenix
Bev Brenna is a literacy professor at the University of Saskatchewan who has published novels and poetry.
SPG REviews, may 26, 2016
I read Saskatoon poet (and nurse) Mary Maxwell’s first book, Wind Leaves Absence, with interest and no small amount of admiration. Many first books of what’s often called confessional poetry-I prefer the word intimate-are a compendium of highlow events experienced over the writer’s lifetime, and what results is a wildly disparate package. While diversity can make for a lively read, we often see more seasoned writers tackle exclusive subjects, examining from multiple angles and probing more deeply to illuminate, better understand, and process. Maxwell daringly takes on the landscape of grief, specifically the pain experienced upon the deaths of her father, two brothers (who died in car accidents two years apart), friends, and patients. Religion–in particular the Catholicism she grew up with and appears to wrestle with (“miserable prayers”)–is also front and centre in this collection.
In the first few poems the writer establishes mood with phrases that emotionally thrum, like bells in a deserted monastery: “the wilderness between words,” “Trousers fall from hangerscollapse on the floor,” and “Pushing his walker through wet matted leaves.” She does a spot-on job of portraying the hopelessness of dementia, ie: her father must navigate “the daily maze of the kitchen”.
I found two memory-loss poems particularly moving. In “Line on Paper,” when her father tries to draw a beloved horse, Sandy, he manages the initial line to indicate the horse’s neck, then “He puts the pencil down, looks at medoesn’t knowwhat the next line should be”. In the five-line poem “Birthday,” he is signing a card for his wife and pauses because he “[doesn’t] remember how to spell wonderful”. This is powerful because it objectively shows her father’s decline. I expect that Maxwell’s nursing background–those in the medical field cannot dwell on the inevitable losses–has had a positive influence on her poetry: there’s no melodrama here. This is just the way it is. But sometimes the medical frankness is rattling, ie: in “Old Man’s Friend,” after the poet’s father chokes and is admitted to hospital, the presiding doctor declares that pneumonia will move in. He “closes the chart,” and says “‘We call it the old man’s friend’”.
These mostly quiet poems often reveal life’s disquieting ironies, ie: funeral orchids have “chokedfallen overgone dry” while in another room “birthday flowersloudly proclaim spring”. After a night of summer joy-riding a friend’s daughter remains unresponsive in hospital. When the poet walks home from this scene, “Cars roar past, musiclaring, girls laughing”. In “Sweet Old Lady,” the author urse finds a diabetic woman’s apartment filled with candy while her feet have “gone black,” the “sweetness eating [her] alive”.
Maxwell does not obscure the raw realities of death, nor does she makes saints of her dead. In a poem titled “Fool,” she writes “I’m standing in line at The Bay to buya pair of pants for my brother’s corpse”. She shows us that just as winter “falters into spring,” so must we move on after unfathomable grief, and writing it all out is good medicine.
— Shelley A. Leedahl, SaskBooks