for what it is

10 November 2014

for what it is
by Joan Newton
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Kris Brandhagen
$16.95 978-1-894431-90-3

The first things I noticed about for what it is by Joan Newton were its title, and its cover image. The cover shows a painted image of a floating table on top of which sits a pair of reading glasses next to a book set facedown to save the page. The objects seem about to slide off the table, providing tension although it appears, at first glance, to be very calm and relaxing.

Throughout for what it is, I noticed a variety of poetic devices. Newton pays close attention to how she uses vowels and consonants in each poem, including conversational language, affecting the way the poems sound. Newton’s approach to writing is playful; her lines sometimes continue without pause, and at times she uses rhythm, rhyme, and circular structure.

In the poem “Moment” Newton explores a pleasurable experience with which many readers will likely identify:

She upends the paper bag
over her small son’s cupped hands
shaking into them
the last of the sugary crumbs.
Snuffling up the sweetness,
he rubs his face
and they are happy.

This poem evokes a memory from my teenage years, which involves the salty acidic crumbs left inside a chip bag. After the chips were all eaten, I would tend to straighten the bag as best I can, and then tip the corner into my mouth from above, so that the crumbs would tumble down, more flavourful than the chips themselves. This is my favourite poem in the book.

Newton’s writing also takes on several different personas, from the first person ‘I’ narrator to the third person observer. She fleshes out her writing across numerous different situations, and the poems include all different kinds of people. In “Riverbank,” through the voice of a male persona, Newton explores the memories of youth, as recalled from an adult point of view.

The imagery of the riverbank is rich and specific: “racing paths of oily mud and / mining trophies from the spiky brush”. Newton allows the reader to be haunted by suspense: “Yet sometimes, when we paused / to watch grey birds flirt upon the river, / we sensed him / or perhaps, it— / a presence anyway— / stalking the borders of our lives”, putting the reader into the situation itself.

In the long narrative poem “Jack Labelle and Summer People”, Newton experiments with a rhyming structure that confines the writing, causing it to bloom like a peony, an impossibly large flower coming from a comparatively tiny bud. for what it is was a refreshing read, offering a new perspective of prairie life. Rhyme is not generally a device I enjoy, but I really liked Newton’s rhyming poems, and I would like to read more. Joan Newton’s biography at the end of the book states that her “poetry often spring(s) from her observations of life’s little oddities,” and that is definitely true of this book.


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