Bernadette Wagner … opens This Hot Place by locating her family's farm, both in Aerial Photograph and in Grandmother's Land, in which she ends, "On Grandmother's land the seasons follow one another/ no matter what. Grandmother's land remembers."
Now that she's made that declaration, she moves on to poems in which she reveals that, at a primal level, her sister "will always be the favoured one," or that, having seen her sister and a boy "wriggling and wiggling," "I'd hafta keep my big mouth shut." There are vicious dog bites, boys touching girls to explore, cruel teasing, and outright warfare: "Hey Brother, remember the time/ you with butcher knife gleaming/ raced after me until Mom intervened?" Ah, yes, the tender years.
Wagner divides her collection into three: Maiden, Mother, Crone, moving from the "don'ts" of childhood and "some incidents" of sexual trespass on a teenager to the joys and griefs of motherhood. In Motherload a young mother tries to figure out the basics of feeding a new baby, finally conceding through her frustration, "I wanna love you."
Then there's a mother's packed day and a husband who comes home from "work" to declare she's lazy (Abuse), while in Unfounded people search for a child who won't be coming home, and in You Shadow Me and The Door the poet mourns a lost sister.
Now that she's addressed the mortality of loved ones, in Crone Wagner moves closer to Sorestad country, addressing her own body's aging in Meditations on Her Body and the frankly titled Heart Attack. Wagner takes on, unflinchingly, the diminishment of desire in It Happens, Sacred Sex, and Clitoris: Her Story, then takes one last look at the teasing she endured as a child and how it has shadowed her all her life. But, for all that, she loves life, and ends with the affirmation of So Much You Love This.
For Wagner … life is sacred and full of special moments, though she has no trouble remembering it red in tooth and claw.
— Bill Robertson
This collection of fifty-seven poems is divided into three sections, by theme or muse,
“Maiden”, “Mother”, and, finally, “Crone.
In “Maiden”, this heroine is counter-culture, who incurs sibling rivalry, the onset of puberty, sexual harassment and sexual assault, the bad boy, wherein religion predominates in the household, diction of the vernacular, in prose poems like “That Time Grandma Asked Me To Find My Sister” and “Corona Hotel”.
The poet observes loss and, unlike her age mates, experiences anticipatory grief, in “Growing Up”.
The setting of auction sales,
Further still, miles and miles
of unbroken prairie where crocuses
push through each spring, where I wander
a child waving at planes. (“Aerial Photograph”, p. 10)
This is a matriarchal world-view, feminist Zeitgeist, with a choral structure of incremental, incantatory repetition of Grandmother's “curves”, kleine kind”, “land”, and “Grandmother's land remembers.” (p. 11) “Grandmother's creaking gate” (p. 20) “to rock in Grandma's arms.” (p. 21)
A concrete poem (“Oktoberfest”) with “On Beauty” which dissects a poisoned arrow, with images of knitting, with skeins of yarn. In “Mother, a dialogue between first-person, who experiences sleep deprivation, (“Not Wanting Any Thing But Sleep”) suffering from post-partum depression; the other voice is in the third-person, text set in italics, of the ideal nurturing mother, juxtaposing alternate realities on the page. (“Motherload”).
She carries with her a copy of A Mother's Journal, and relies on tranquillizers. (“The Personal is Political”, p. 31) The poem delineates the ages of daughter and son, their childhood experiences as seen through their mother's eyes.
Newly discovered hazards like “Wascana Creek”, abound. The environment returns to seasonal adjustments, “sky-blue”, whether spring/summer or “A winter week” (“Specimens From The Abbey 2002, p. 37) She pursues right-justified lyrics (“The 'Help Me' Beach Ritual”, p. 39) and sprung rhythm (“Lioness”) Married sex is not as passionate constrained by domestic details. She seeks “a new world. Our only hope” (in an analogy to Shakespeare's “The Tempest”). A Grandmother moon looms large in the window. She compiles Greek mythology with agricultural vocabulary; Osama Bin Laden with a Halloween jack-o-lantern; the cycles of drought.
Our tears are the rains that rid us of hoppers turn our parched lives into gardens, blooming.
(“Grasshopper's Song”, p. 48)
She glimpses the perils of free trade, while shopping and with thoughts of shoplifting, exchanges her sisterless fate with quilting:
How I want to pull it from its dowel,
wrap it round our grief, wipe tears with its wine-red edge.”
(“Sisterless”, p. 52)
Shades continue to inhabit their environs, the mown lawn, the bookshelf, a wooden spoon, especially Grandmother's yard and how Grandma died (“This Bleeding Heart”, p. 56)
In “Crone”, she embraces five generations of women, three decades after Grandma's death (“Sa[l]vage Self) by emanations from some of their belongings. The crops represent a series of growth, charts resembling the heights of children demarcated on walls. A single mother, a secret illegitimate child, “sister turned mother/mother, in fact, grandmother.” p. 59). In its stead, she makes secrecy her sister (p. 62). The bloated belly of Venus (“Sacred Sex”), but “Wind Whispers.” (“In The Grasslands”, p. 64)
Compare “Specimens From The Abbey 2002” with “Coming To: St. Peter's Abbey, 2004”, and “Mediations on Her Body: St. Peter's Abbey, 2004”. In deed and word,
Swatches of her life,
this old piece, her wrinkling body,
a life's work, the paper trail.
Playing cards turn Tarot and totemic, her father's face a litany of fires past, while
While she, first-born daughter,
relegated to the woman's realm to
cook and clean, hoe and weed,
tend children, gather eggs. (“Heart Attack”, p. 69)
She observes “The Owl-eyed Goddess”, from “the kitchen I called home”; but “white/mares lead a silver chariot/to light and sky”. By “piercing illusions and making a better world.
The Great Mother reappears (“Clitoris: Her Story”. The psychomachia of “Breathing Space”, and misogynistic taunts (“My Place”) recede, to make way for the concrete poem, a butterfly unfurled onto the page, as a final and flush-centric poem,
Let the love-whisper
of the creek lull you into presence.
(“So Much You Love This”, p. 78)
Bernadette Wagner organized the popular panel on Mothering for the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets. She authors multiple blogs on women's issues and political activism. — Anne Burke
Bernadette Wagner shines bright lights in dark places, taking the reader unflinchingly through the tunnels, plateaus, and heights of life — life as a woman, on the western Canadian prairies.
Her poetry is divided in to three sections representing a woman’s lifespan — Maiden, Mother, Crone. Each section is filled with poetic story — the joy and sorrow of experiences within these stages, often from a very personal and vulnerable space in the narrator’s life.
A strong sense of place, memory, experience, character, and authentic voice is created from the outset. Harvest-time, farm auctions, sibling rivalry, childhood innocence and its loss, adolescence, sexuality and violation all come to light in the caringly parsed pages of “Maiden”.
“Mother” at once explores the specific and the universal: the feeding of the first infant, rituals of toddlerhood, grocery store moments, and others met along the way. Wagner births emotion and compassion along with children, as she shares moments, experiences, and the roller coaster ride that every parent will recognize in each stage and encounter. Tied into that universal experience of parenthood is the specific prairie passage of being rural-raised and now urban-dwelling: “So much has changed/the land is in someone else’s name/ highway #22, once paved, is now graveled/our babies are now teens, gifts that arrived/in times of doubt and drought.” The lost lands and farms are akin to the birth, growth and eventual separation from our own offspring.
Wagner also takes care in her poetry to examine the bigger picture: the evolution of agriculture, the large corporations, judgmental attitudes in society. She is a keen observer with a sense of justice tempered by compassion. But her larger examinations of society are carefully balanced by intimate moments of personal grief and loss, such as the poem “Sisterless” — “Twelve squares to this quilt./How I want to pull it from its dowel,/wrap it round our grief,/wipe tears with its wine-red edge.” — and the ones that follow, giving voice to the haunting, or sometimes very real and practical, expressions of grief we all encounter.
The final section, “Crone”, gently examines family secrets, abandoned farms, aging parents, and the ancient and sacred feminine — completing the journey for the reader, and bringing it full-circle.
Wagner’s honesty and emotion in this poetic narrative efficiently sow, grow, and reap the fields of memory and place, providing an abundant crop for the reader to harvest. — Andréa Ledding