Lorri Neilsen Glenn is a poet and essayist with four collections of poetry, the most recent being Lost Gospels (Brick Books, 2010). She was Poet Laureate for Halifax from 2005-2009, and lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her collection of essays on grief and loss will be published this fall by Hagios Press.
Learn more about her work at http://www.writers.ns.ca/writers/N/neilsenglennlorri.html. Lorri may be contacted at lorrineilsenglenn(at)gmail(dot)com.
"I can be in the alley of a large urban centre, hiking Signal Hill in Newfoundland, or watching from the windy shore in Valparaiso, turn, and stop: arrested by an image, a landscape that seems true, the sound of a voice, a constellation of color and shape that invites a closer look. Sometimes the moment is unsettling, but always it is compelling.
Stunned, breathless, pierced: such moments, too, can strike me when I am reading other writers. A few pages into poet Bronwen Wallace’s The Stubborn Particulars of Grace, for example, and I was overtaken. It’s not until now, years later, that I realize why.
Wallace was a Canadian poet and short story writer who died in 1989 at the age of 44. The collection of her poetry that moved me so profoundly lights up the stubborn particulars of the here and now – of this, this, and this – in the lives of truck drivers and abused women and teenaged boys, of a parrot in the North or bones upturned in the field, of a woman singing alone in the house on a Saturday afternoon. As an ethnographer, someone who studies cultures, I am curious about meanings we invest in things and places, about the bonds we make. Now, a decade after first reading her work, I see how Bronwen Wallace’s example matters even more in our literary culture: she reminds me how little we celebrate foremothers.
Wallace’s writing was work on the threshold-- it collapsed boundaries and borders, created connections in a world in flux, allowed the intimacy of the everyday to slow-dance with philosophy. She was an activist, a tireless political worker for autoworkers and battered women, among others, and her poetry and fiction bring their breath and their voices up close to our ears, alert us to their despair and their hard-won joys, without a hint of preaching.
Several of my Canadian writer friends knew Bronwen Wallace well; a few studied with her, sat around kitchen tables with her. Friends tell me she was complicated, flawed, brilliant, generous, and no-nonsense. When I turned to writing poetry at the late age of 50, I knew little of the literary landscape and its critical shifts. I came to Wallace’s poems without any preconceptions, struck by the generous sweep of thought that curls back to tuck in detail, the lift, sway and propulsion of Wallace’s lines, by a mature conversational voice that belied a fierce intelligence and canny attention to craft. And by her wit-- an open-heartedness that allowed the whole world in. Wry, but not ironic. Her work spoke eloquently about who she was in the world, and what mattered to her.
Added to my bookshelf in those early days were the works of Lucille Clifton and Sharon Olds—all the poetry I’d read to that point, really, was in the tissue-thin pages of Norton anthologies in survey courses. I’d found few foremothers there, aside from the usual: Emily Dickinson, or if we were lucky, Elizabeth Bishop. I knew nothing. Now, years later I see how Wallace’s work pointed me to the work of other Canadian poets—the widely-anthologized Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwan, yes, but more, so many more whose names weren’t the first to come to the lips of the book-buyers of the world. Poets whose work you might not find in a small library or in an airport bookstore, but whose ideas and voices, like ocean or rock or boreal forest, are the abiding and forceful presences that deliver us and carry us forward.
In Canada, Wallace’s poetry, like Carol Shields’ fiction, brought the complexities of the domestic and the personal to the forefront. Wallace did not shy away from clear-eyed unsentimental stories that might make others squirm; for her, as for Shields, these moments were not ‘merely domestic’ or –worse – ‘solipsistic’ or ‘confessional.’ They were essential, and they were not to be dismissed.
Women tend not to occupy the public sphere, even now in 2011. In large part, we find self-promotion distasteful, feel awkward about trumpeting our prizes or our publications shamelessly on social network sites. When asked to review or respond to others’ work, we prefer to sit with the poems and let them steep, to think about the writer and her winding path into her work, to consider the fresh insights and perspectives she brings to the wider conversation. Because that’s it, after all; in the noisy world of publishing—a world that seems to have become a three-ring circus in Times Square—we long for the silence and the slow grace of word, thought, and human spirit coming together. We long for the resonant connections that drew us to poetry—to any form of writing--in the first place.
Wallace is only one foremother--we each have our own to celebrate in our communities and cultures. I have drawn courage from Wallace’s work, and daily I try to stay open, as she did, to the stubborn particulars of the here and now.
Outside is the barking marketplace, the thrust and parry of gatekeeper battles, the petty jostlings of egos and toxic discourse that find their way into the air we breathe. As Wallace writes, “How can any of us know/what will speak for us or who/will be heard?” Here, now, I am speaking, through Bronwen Wallace’s work, for the gifts of random testimonies and slow discoveries, for essentials of the spirit her work leaves for us, for the grace found in the one and the many. Here, now, I am speaking for our conversations across time with literary foremothers. For testimonies, and those singular, ordinary moments of connection we create now on the trail, in the street, at the door, and at the kitchen table. "
Note: if you'd like to know more about Wallace, please click here (link via Lorri).
This post first appeared on the Women Doing Literary Things site.