The Taste of Giving: New &
Selected Poems, Introduction by Jean Mallinson,
Carolyn Zonailo is a lyric poet who is committed to poetry
as a way of discovering the world and the self. Her poetry is
an exploration of ways of being at home in a world which will
open itself to the self-and-world-discovering soul.
Through the particulars of locale
and family history, Zonailo renders her own vivid apprehension
of the issues raised by history at large. For her, the possibility
of fatalism, or of lying down under the boot of history, is never
a real choice.
In her heritage, women actively
made history–by bearing witness through resolute action.
Thus the example of her heritage precludes for this poet the choice
of passivity, freeing her poetry from the despair of premature
mourning over what history might have in store.
Zonailo's poems about her Doukhobor
heritage come early, as though they are establishing poems for
those that will come after. Although they celebrate deeply historical
acts and gestures, they bind the traditional into the modern through
the poet's perspective, which both claims the tradition, and establishes
her difference. "Polly" is a poem of sorrow and protest
about immigration at one remove: third generation looking back
to first; emigration, from one culture, one country, to another;
and also emigration, drastic and brutal, from one time period
to another. The poem "Heritage” displays the naked
bodies of the poet's female forebears as the word made flesh,
faith incarnate in the stripped bodies of the women who protest.
"Arson Trial, Crown vs. the
People" spells out the tenants of Zonailo's aesthetic. The
women on trial perform "acts of belief"; their acts
become a model for Zonailo as a poet. Her longer poems enact "ritual
transformations"; her shorter poems are "rites of belief",
presented through images which, like the women's bodies in this
early poem, are emblems in which meaning has been made incarnate.
The most general base for lyric
poetry is the narrative of a life, considered by Zonailo not as
a pilgrimage toward understanding, but rather as a story into
which epiphanies may break at any moment. As a lyric poet, she
is concerned not with narrative per se, but with the lyric occasions
which it creates. What fascinates her is not sequence but metamorphosis;
not the static emblem, but the iconotropic image, which changes
while you look at it; not continuity in time, but time as an opportunity
For Zonailo, place is crucial—both
as a source of images and as a generator of new stories—because
places retain the traces of old narratives, and can elicit new
ones. For the personae who participate in Zonailo's poems and
who speak out of them, place becomes—without losing its
tactile and visual actuality—a geography of the spirit.
To find what Zonailo calls "a
mythic entrance into landscape" is to make landscape part
of the human story—to gather the images of landscape into
human meanings; and to open the self to the intimations which
landscape offers. Her sense of
landscape as numinous has been with her from the beginning. For
her, the experience of landscape and of personal occasion is mythological
in essence, not just in interpretation. In her work the immediate
and the mythological are conflated and perceived as two-fold—as
inseparably unified in the poem.
This feeling for the world is elaborated
in the long poems, but can also be seen in epitome in "Lumberman's
Arch," a lyrical section from a longer sequence. Rather than
being a regret for the loss of a child's clairvoyant perception
of the world, this lyric is an affirmation of a way of experiencing
the world natural to the child, and still possessed by the mature
poet. To live thus in the world which is at one and the same time
real and mythological is, the poem says, to be at home in the
The narrative of romantic love
is another base for lyric poetry. Zonailo's lyrics arising out
of this old, but very contemporary story, convey both a sense
of the antiquity of the various arrangements which coupling enjoins,
and an urgency to make these things new and fresh in language.
Her love poems express a feeling for the fragility and gravity
of the couple, in the context of modern history. An early love
poem, "Burial of Bones" finds, in the powerful shorthand
of symbols, a terse summary of the burden of loving, enacted here
in terms of ritual—digging stones, burying bones. Zonailo's
love poems seem to exist in a mood of fated intensity: the stations-on-the-way
of this bittersweet service, which lovers willy-nilly pay to love,
she celebrates in tableaux which are both carnal and sacramental.
In finding fictions to carry her
sense of life into poetry, the poet has the richness of her own
daily experience, as well as the store of narrative and images
from classical sources, and, in Zonailo's case, from the native
myths of the West Coast. An early lyric, "D'Sonoqua"
invokes a powerful image from native mythology, used here as a
vehicle for the exploration of the self: the terrible mother,
the dark double, with whom the poet identifies, and whom she must
The long poem "False Passage"
alludes to native history and legend; it expresses a sense of
human living embodied in the flora and fauna of the coast. The
title of the poem itself presents a natural image of transformation:
the narrow passage between two islands, which is water at high
tide, dry land at low. The varied meditations of this poem intensely
evoke the poet's feelings for the landscape and its legends as
an animated, animating source—both for the human life lived
in communion with it, and for the words which express that life.
"Ceremonial Dance" combines
the regional—the Queen Charlotte Islands, home of Haida
culture and its sacred places—with the classical story of
Circe and her transformations. This frame sustains a meditation
on sexuality, fidelity, and love. What both these sources give
the poet is detail: names, attributes, paraphernalia, and the
power of allusion that particulars allow.
Circe's world, in "Ceremonial
Dance," is a paradise where the boundaries between species
are dissolved, and organic forms become interchangeable. In contrast
to Circe's story, the landscape of the Queen Charlottes is presented
as the real or profane world, where men and women suffer "the
misery of being human." Yet it, too, generates a story of
cross-transformations, drawn from native mythology. The conclusion
to "Ceremonial Dance" is more rhapsody than resolution,
where the habitual is also ritual—not what happened once,
bound into narrative time—but what happens over and over,
freed into eternal recurrence.
Similarly, though the title of
the long poem "Journey to the Sibyl" suggests a proceeding
through time, the shape of the poem is governed by the rhythm
of the tides, which imitate the pattern of eternal recurrence.
This poem develops through variations of the governing image—a
bird, which is also a woman. It is more ceremony than pilgrimage—a
circling around an image at a point of stasis, in a life conceived
as an exploration of meaning through images. The item from the
poet's personal history which is the centre (though not the starting
point) of the poem is an image of her dead grandmother, perceived
as an icon of mortality. Thus local landscape, classical mythology,
and personal history are fused in a mode of composition established
by the great modernist poets. Another of the long poems, "Blue
and Green," orchestrates images of metamorphosis under water,
enacting a series of varied scenes of transformation, and ending
with a renunciation of sea changes—a moment of human choice.
Some of the shorter poems, too, celebrate experience as habitual,
or ritual. In "Planting Tulip Bulbs" time is formalized
into assurances of promises. "The Sound of the World"
commemorates a ritual of symbolic gift-giving. The gift, a green
apple, is an epitome of the resonance of the world. "A State
of Grace" honours a ritual of reconciliation, one of the
stations-on-the-way of romantic couple. "The Double"
itemizes the steps in accommodation of the doppelgänger.
"A Bird in My Study" surrounds an actual event, bound
into time—"it happened today"—with a refrain—"this
could happen, any day"—so that the incident signifies
the dangerousness of being alive: a warning to both writer and
From the book of things and the
book of creatures, Zonailo's poems pull images which evoke, name,
and show meaning. In "Heron" she anatomizes the image
of the heron, already made typical at the outset by the generalizing
definite article. She then explores an analogy in which the heron's
flight becomes a sign to be interpreted, part of the metaphormosis
of meaning which is, for the meditating poet, self-referential.
This habit of observation is one
in which we, as readers, are at home—because the search
for analogies between ourselves and the world is an accustomed
habit of thought. The skill of this poet is to surprise us with
her discovery, and illumination, of the correspondences between
ourselves and the world.
In "Winter Landscape"
the season is abridged in the moving pattern of the geese flying
in formation. "Stone Man" is formalized around two metaphors:
the stone in the mouth, the pearl in the oyster. "Dream"
offers for interpretation the emblem of the broken-winged bird.
This device is elaborated in the love complaint "Season"
where it becomes the tableau of the lover feasting on the heart
of the loving one. The title of the poem divided into four short
lyrical sections, "Meditations in the Grand Style" ironically
invokes the tradition of meditative poetry. These lyrics build
their shapes in space in a kind of suspension of time. Their allusions
to the experience which evoked their meditations are delicately
provocative, so that the reader is not allowed to forget the diurnal
context in which these lovely poems hover.
Some of Zonailo's poems create
a fiction based on personification. This gives them a resonance
beyond the personal occasions which aroused them—it gestures
away from the demotic and confessional. Her poems about the Angel
of Forgetfulness, the Angel of Everyday, and the Angel of Sleeplessness
enlarge and dramatize their subjects. "At the Feet of Chaos"
turns domestic turmoil into a kind of masque of passion, giving
the poem a summary, emblematic brilliance.
The last poem in the collection,
"These Are Women Who Visit Me" is an itemization of
gifts to the poet, from women who have gone before her. Each woman
carries her life story like an attribution which becomes a prelude
to the talismanic thing given. The gifts are intricately wrought
artifacts—the significance of which is not stated; but this
lack of specificity, by allowing for interpretation, invites the
reader into the poem. "These Are Women Who Visit Me"
describes a circle that opens with the "me" of the poet
who receives the gifts, and ends with a reference to the poet
in the third person, as one of the gift givers. Her attributes
are given, not as with the other women, in terms of "struggle
and survival", but in terms of her function as a poet: to
remember the stories.
The aesthetic underlying The
Taste of Giving is Zonailo's belief that poetry is an essential
human activity, one which is able to relate to, and recreate,
the phenomenal world through recognition and love. Transcendence
has no part in this aesthetic: the numinous is immanent in the
images the world offers. Nor has alienation any place in her sense
of the world—as a home in which the perceiver and the world
perceived correspond to one another.
For Zonailo, this apprehension
of the world is a matter of trust, revealed in intensely perceived
moments of vision, or epiphany. Such moments evoke a lyric, not
an argumentative or narrative, voice. What Zonailo has done, in
her long poems, is extend the lyric voice through linked lyrics
which sustain the intensity of the lyric, but which also create
a large scope. Zonailo's insistence on grasping and finding words
for a world which is at once phenomenal and numinous, at once
transient and charged with human meaning, informs her poetry with
the vitality of the immediate, and the value of significance.
Her poems, intensely situated in
the particulars of her world, use the figurative language of poetry
to create a pattern of image and meaning which can be shared.
The public swimming pool in which the child floats is at one and
the same time a pool and an umbilicus mundi; the Steller's
Jay is a real jay in a real tree, and at the same time, an epitome
of blueness. Thus the demotic and the hieratic, the everyday and
the visionary, can subsist in the same form. Zonailo has animated
her poetry with the particulars of her locale, as a woman, in
her time—looking out with clairvoyance at the world we all,
in peril and amazement, share.
Copyright by Jean Mallinson: www.carolynzonailo.com,