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Reviews | Reviews | Jean Mallinson

The Taste of Giving: New & Selected Poems, Introduction by Jean Mallinson, Ph.D.

     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 transformation.

     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 world.

     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 placate.

     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 reader.

     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:, 2004. | Reviews | Jean Mallinson
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