Vivian Poems

17 April 2020

The Vivian Poems: Street Photographer Vivian Maier
by Bruce Rice
Published by Radiant Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 9-781989-274293

Choosing a subject most readers will be unfamiliar with is a risky undertaking for a poet. Will readers care about a subject they don’t know? Has enough research been done? Will the poet sufficiently engage his or her audience with this new literary territory? Regarding Bruce Rice’s The Vivian Poems: Street Photographer Vivian Maier, I say Yes, Yes, and Yes.

Rice is Saskatchewan’s Poet Laureate, and this poetic portrait of Chicago photographer Vivian Maier (d. 2009) – whom Rice first learned of via CBC Radio – is the Regina writer’s sixth poetry collection. Maier, his “obsessively private” subject, was employed as a nanny, shot diverse subjects, and died poor, leaving a “legacy of 140,000 black and white negatives, prints, undeveloped rolls of colour film, Super 8 films, and audio recordings” that would later inspire several books, documentaries and “over 60 international exhibits”. Clearly, Rice – who’s frequently inspired by art – found an intriguing subject. He credits many – including the Saskatchewan Arts Board, re: funding his research trip to Chicago – for assistance in bringing this title to fruition. 

I was unfamiliar with Maier and thus turned to Rice’s Afterward to learn more before I read the poems. Maier’s early life was “spent in a kind of serial statelessness,” affected by poverty and being raised solely by her mother, a French immigrant. Rice writes: “There are things we know about her choices, her gaze, and what attracted her whether it was beautiful or not, because we recognize it in ourselves and because we are human”. This shared humanity is as good a reason – perhaps the best reason – to explore a specific life via poetry.

Rice plays with light and shadows in these poems, much like a photographer does. Words like “mirror” and “fixes” are double-entendres, and when Maier narrates, we see the details of her images, ie: a “royal blue stag/knitted crudely into [a boy’s] siwash” and also a fictionalized philosophy, ie: “there are a few kinds of punishment/a hundred kinds of shame”. It’s this pairing – everyday details and elevated thoughts – that make these poems work so well. The way the subjects quickly shift between couplets is reminiscent of ghazals. In “Human River,” personification takes the lead, ie: “the snowy breath of Manhattan” and “this weather teaches/an avenue of empty benches”. Rice gives several of Maier’s subjects the narrator’s voice, ie: in “furniture mover,” the narrator says “you’re stuck in my mirror/don’t worry lady/I’ll get you out”.  

Window washers, gutters, “white-walled Lincolns,” “gravestones and the poses/of agreeable old men” … these are the photographic and poetic terrain. Rice has fun with colour throughout the book, ie: “white babushka,” “ruby flesh,” and “clowns /in red pantaloons”. 

I’ll now find Maier’s work online, and see what’s so inspired Rice to imagine sublime lines like this: “a face is a face    and it’s hard to say/who has lived well and who simply waits/for the final punctuation”. My favourite line, however, is “Some days a light touch is all you need/to know you’ve been touched”. These poems touched me. 


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