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Reviews | Reviews | Dona Smyth

The Taste of Giving: New & Selected Poems, review By Dona Smyth, Acadia University, Journal of Canadian Poetry

     Carolyn Zonailo's The Taste of Giving reverses structural strategy, by moving from present to past. We begin with the early poems, quite literally a "Burial of Bones." The bones are artifacts of love as well as archaeological history. From these bones grow poems of dreams and desire rooted in the earth of a particular place, mostly Vancouver and the West Coast, sometimes the interior of that vast province of British Columbia.

     The late 1970s poems move quickly from death and burial to birth and creation, female creation—a mother-body, mother-mind, creation-mother is invoked:

Even a child knows
begins with mother

She opens her womb
like an overturned toy-box
spills out all those bright, unbroken

     This is a woman poet in quest of her mythic and historical heritage. Her Doukhobor ancestors and their tradition of radical dissent and non-violent civil disobedience is claimed as part of the poet's aesthetic: "there's a tradition/ of walking naked/ in my history." Her Russian grandmother Polly, who was given electroshock therapy because the doctors, disregarding menopausal troubles and the initial stages of cancer, thought she was mad, haunts the poet and the grandmother's corpse reappears in the later quest poem "Journey to the Sibyl."

     These early poems are haunted too by the masks and traditions of West Coast native art, reminding this reader sometimes of Emily Carr, sometimes of early Susan Musgrave. In "Initiation," "D'Sonoqua,” and "False Passage," the spirits of a place where land and sea meet and merge and separate and transform each other are evoked and invoked. In "False Passage" especially, the poet claims to be reading the signs of nature, of native art, of human stories with the prophetic eye of Tiresias, Greek myth enfolded in the indigenous myths of time and place overlaying each other as the modern seeker sifts the sacred sites for knowledge and vision. A later poem, "Ceremonial Dance," picks up and amplifies some of the images and themes, this time counter-pointing a journey on one of the Queen Charlotte Islands with the journey of Ulysses to and on Circe's mythic island where she transforms humans into animals. The modern woman speaker of the poem plays with the Penelope mask, puts it on, discards it; she moves between mythic time and 'real' time, tracing the emblems of metamorphosis, human into animal into human, flesh transformed by desire until finally human form is rejected as the speaker and her companion lie with Circe:

We will mate with her
and let her sing us to sleep;
let her turn our bodies back into

fish or fowl or four-footed creatures
who crave and crave the sound
of her song.

     In Zonailo's poetry too, there are many gardens, physical and metaphysical, fertile and desert gardens, where women plant and tend and quest. They range from the struggle of the housewife to transform the city into a garden, to pregnant Eve in Eden: "This is how I always remember Eden/ as Eve's backyard garden." The desert garden and the wilderness are the sites of "The Dreamkeeper," a poem of the mysteries of the female quest where the seeker finds her spirit animal (the wolf, both male and female) and herself, and returns from the wilderness, naked like her ancestors.

     This is a poet driven to seek spiritual and creative power. The journey is inward, the path descends, spirals to the bottom of the sea, brings us back to "the breathable blue surface." "Journey to the Sibyl" claims the prophetic gift which is always given at a price, tells us of the bird-woman inside the 'real' woman, the bird-woman who knows the secrets of death but is herself immortal. The bird-woman is the image of the poet's "need to make an image." "Blue and Green" shifts the quest to the descent into the sea, the act of "diving into alien water" imaged first as the bird snagged on the fishhook, dragged down into depths, the pain and shock strangely distant. Then the Diver becomes two human divers (male) with their clumsy equipment to keep them alive at the bottom of the sea where the sea-gardens grow. Immersed in this "destructive element" (the poet quotes Conrad), transformations of flesh, water, and rock work miracles which we must leave behind as we surface to the other world where a horizon separates sea and sky. The horizon is a line marking and framing difference, identity. The poem demonstrates that we need both the depths and the surface.

     In contrast to these mythic poems, the "Sonnets of Despair" are generated from the personal, the domestic, and the familiar. Loss and death erupt, disrupt, in the midst of life: "here is the hidden worm," the cherry trees unblossoming so quickly in the big wind, the quickness of that taking, the death of a child. Despair is muted in the making/reading of the poems. Healing words mediate pain as in the later "Poem to calm troubled sleep" and "Chant to give comfort in extreme pain."

     The new poems, "Poems of the Heart, for Anna Akhmatova," invoke various angels, the angel of sleeplessness, of forgetfulness, of the everyday in the context of familiar human realities. Some of them transform ordinary people like the poet's Aunt Annie into emblems of reality. "Collecting Junk" is a gently humorous but also serious tracing of the "alchemists of junk" in the poet's life: her Aunt Eileen, her father, a family friend, Joe. The poet's daughter is celebrated in "Her Long-Limbed Beauty," a re-creation of the delightful and frustrating contradictions of teenage sexuality and physicality as seen from the parent's point of view.

     These later poems are less urgent, more reflective, a little more human and relaxed. They end with "These are Women Who Visit Me," listing the ancestors and mentors who have given gifts to the poet but ending with the poet's own gift to the world, her poems. This lovely female genealogy links back to the early poems and their claim of woman-power.

Copyright by Dona Smyth:, 2004. | Reviews | Dona Smyth
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Last Will and Testament
I give my soul to God.
I give my body to the earth.
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I give my spirit to tolerance.
I give my mind to the future.
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The Land of Motionless ChildhoodThe Land of Motionless Childhood is a memoir of short stories by Carolyn Zonailo about growing up in Vancouver, and her Doukhobor heritage.
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Literary Papers
Spanning the years 1955 to 2005, the Carolyn Zonailo Papers holds, as nearly as possible, a currently complete collection of Zonailo's extant literary papers.
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