Sumac’s Red Arms

30 September 2009

Sumac’s Red Arms
by Karen Shklanka
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$16.95 ISBN 978-1-55050-402-6

Must one live an interesting life in order to write interesting poetry? I would argue that no, this is not a requirement, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The Vancouver poet, family physician, world traveler, and flamenco dancer, Karen Shklanka, draws from her own rich experience and has much to tell in her first book of poetry, Sumac’s Red Arms. She sets many of her often surprising poems against the various locales she’s called home: Moose Factory, Ontario; Sydney, Australia; Los Angeles; Houston; Salt Spring Island; and Regina.

The first poems reveal scenarios from the poet’s medical work in a northern Ontario community. We meet “James,” who “woke bleeding on a battlefield of empties\and limp friends” and has “been sitting all morning with a gun to his head”. And we’re introduced to “The Girl From Attawapiskat”: “She spits on me as they wheel her out on the stretcher”. These are no-nonsense
anecdotes, and Shklanka adopts a journalistic style to convey them, thus ensuring that sentimentality does not cloud the telling.

In the book’s radically different second section, “The Scent of Cloves,” readers are treated to disparate sensory delights-including many culinary ones-from settings including Mexico and Spain. In “Hands and Stories,” Shklanka writes: “We go inside and make guacamole,\black beans, salad with these strange fruits.\You don’t know a papaya\is a yellow football full of seed\like round black beads”. This poem ends with the delightfully exotic: “Purple and orange crabs fall out of the drainpipes.”

The third section, “Vocabulary: A Tango,” is almost self-explanatory. Here Shklanka shifts poetic gears, offering minimalist, lyrical poems that dance across the page.

She returns to medical matters in “Cradle,” but manages a certain elegance in her descriptions concerning “The Hidden Lives of Bones”: “oh beautiful clavicle, oh\easily broken\one, darling\how easily you repair\yourself”. Another poem in this section, “How They Divide,” is a back and forth poem about a splitting couple, and what each takes with them, ie: “He keeps the antique table without any chairs,” and “She keeps the prayer wheel\they bought on the road to Pokhara, which was pitted with meteor holes\and mating dogs”. I particularly like this piece for its appealing combination of personal and travel details.

In the final section, “The Under wings of Clouds,” romantic relationships take centre stage, and the book closes with a poem that leaves us considering endings, and beginnings.

When she’s at her best, Shklanka paints with words. Consider these lines: “An old man takes his cat for a ride\in a yellow crate with wheels” (from “El Viejo”); a flamenco dancer’s hands “curl upward like smoke from\burning leaves on a still day” (from “Waiting”); “a spoonbill’s wings flash pink in the long sun\as it strikes through the salt marsh looking” (from “Winter Day, Texas Coast”); and ” A purple jellyfish lies\like a placenta on\the beach” (from “Readiness”).

To read Shklanka’s Sumac’s Red Arms is to walk-and dance!-in some of the interesting shoes (like the pair gracing the book’s cover) that this multi-faceted poet has worn.


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