A Woman Clothed In Words

27 June 2012

A Woman Clothed in Words
by Anne Szumigalski
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Kris Brandhagen
$16.95 CAD 978155050478

The name Anne Szumigalski has long been ubiquitous in Saskatchewan’s writing community. According to A Woman Clothed in Words editor Mark Abley, “[t]he depth and breadth of her involvement in the Saskatchewan literary community are hard to overestimate. Anne was a founding member of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, a founding editor of Grain, and the first writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library”.

She was a complex writer, who refused to be nailed down to a specific poetics, by herself, by anyone else, or even by her poems, preferring to always push boundaries, in terms of writing in all genres, and writing in-between genres, as well as collaborating with all sorts of other arts media and professionals. It is noted by Abley that, “the interplay between language and the female body shapes much of her work.” We find out where the title of this book comes from in an excerpt from the “Thin Pale Man”:

…here’s the river again and the ice
and Anna giving herself to love
all garments fall from her
but the garment of words
and what could be more beautiful
than a woman clothed in words…

In some of the poems included, such as “Poetics of Tension and Encounter: Apologia,” Szumigalski addresses the subject of poetry itself, and what it is to be a poet: “For the poet, that absurd combination of naiveté and sophisti- / cation, can never be satisfied with her work, must find a new / tune and saw away at the broken fiddle forever.” Here is an excerpt from “Our Sullen Art” in which poetry is personified as a small boy:

the language of poetry has something to do
with the open mouth the tongue that jumps
up and down like a child on a shed roof calling
ha ha and who’s the dirty rascal now?
the same boy sent to his room for punishment
leans from his window listening for animals
far away in the woods strains his ears to catch
even the slightest sound of rage but nothing howls
even the hoot of the owls in the dusk is gentle

“A State of Grace” is a story about the adventures of a group of children (and one is a trout) who play their days away in the prairie landscape instead of going to school. Reading such a gorgeous piece of writing, such a surreal piece, my mind hearkens back to poetry personified as a little boy, observing the world through a window.

Further along in the story, when the children are charged with picking out the family’s new home: “Number Thirty-two, on the other hand, has a high patch of rhubarb and an old grey shed with spaces between the boards. Inside people can look out, but outside people, however hard they peer, can see nothing in the mildewy dark but broken slats of light and the peculiar glow of unfamiliar eyes.” Well, isn’t that perfectly childlike, wondrously mysterious criteria? Why they would choose one house over another— and just what sort of details they notice, is a window into their character,.

According to her biography, Szumigalski was “a precocious lover of poetry,” which speaks of her immense desire to be a poet, despite her skill and talent in the narrative and dramatic genres. It becomes apparent that she loved language and its problems so much that she formed a life-long struggle out of ‘becoming a poet.’ She shows herself as a storyteller even in her poems. This book is a success, largely in that Coteau allows Abley to reenact what Szumigalski herself enacted throughout her life of writing, which was to be endearing; this book endears its reader to Szumigalski. This posthumous collection forms a great introduction, inspiring me to delve more deeply into her writing.


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