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Reviews | Reviews | Ira Nadel

The Wide Arable Land, broadcast by Ira Nadel, CBC Radio

     Gardens and landscape have long been popular subjects for poetry. Mythically they recall a lost pastoral world of repose; historically, they represent systems of order and attitudes to nature. In the Georgics, Virgil wrote about planting while Shakespeare used the garden in plays divergent as A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. Milton's Garden of Eden is disrupted by the serpent while Marvell's remains a quiet world "Annihilating all that's made/ To a green thought in a green shade." Pope, Keats and Tennyson furthered the image while modern poets like Yeats, Dylan Thomas and Auden translated the garden into contemporary metaphors. Now a young Canadian poet, Carolyn Zonailo, joins that tradition in her new collection entitled The Wide Arable Land. Borrowed from a letter by Keats, the title refers to the landscape where "the seed of some trouble"/ is / being planted in a "wide arable land of events." This theme of joy coexisting with despair, laughter with disappointment controls Carolyn Zonailo's experimental poems.

     Zonailo divides The Wide Arable Land into six sections, each with a different emphasis and style. The first is a collection of sixteen tightly written poems dealing with diverse subjects: love, nature, animals and places. The writing is controlled and direct, purposeful in its use of imagery as in these opening stanzas from the poem "Heron":

Here is my fallen angel, the heron
as it lifts awesome grey wings.

In repose a common bird, neck too long,
too awkward to be beautiful.

In the air the heron's wings span
all known cosmologies.

The wing itself a cosmology,
a fallen angel, beautiful

with a complexity of features,
with the motion of flight.

The transformation from the literal to the spiritual bird is carefully controlled by the image of the moving wing.

     The second and third sections of The Wide Arable Land deal with poems on single themes. "Sonnets of Despair" concentrate on harmful situations and desperate feelings. Desire becomes the "hidden worm" in one poem and given a new identity:

Call it solitude and deny my heart
its intimate companion.
Call it love, and let it consume.
Smash the mirror! Call the husk!
Strip the snail of its private shell!

     Violence and action characterize these poems as fragmentation replaces wholeness, hurt replaces comfort. A long, semi-allegorical work, "The Red Camellias", is another disturbing poem narrating how the sharing of a wound by two women generates love but also distrust. It mixes medieval symbolism with feminist goals. Its sub-themes are the artist, his restlessness and his satisfactions.

     "Annunciation, the Angel" is the difficult fourth section of the book, a mixture of Indian and Christian myth joined to political and social theory. But here the burden of the numerous ideas overwhelm the poetic structure creating confusion. "Ceremonial Dance," the fifth section extends the treatment of myth through the story of Circe superimposed on experience in the Queen Charlottes. The direction and discipline of the writing is clearer in this poem. Thirteen lyrical poems make up the final long poem of the book, entitled "Journey to the Sibyl". They link images of the Cumae Sibyl to the personal experience and private understanding. This passage from VIII displays the refined style but troubling theme in Zonailo's writing:

     the woman transformed
into a bird

the bird carved in a piece
of bone

a smooth white antler
shaped in a graceful curve

of bird wing

or the bird trapped
in stone

the bird beating in me
beating its wings against
my ribs, hollows a circle

     The poems in The Wide Arable Land express a sense of continual searching—a quest to understand how to live with the past as well the present. But in the journey to find the Sibyl one finds no salvation, only a shrill and elusive voice that is unsure of the future and puzzling about the past. With its divergent styles and irregular forms, Zonailo's book reflects a similar unsettledness which alternately provides her with poetic energy and personal despair. Collectively it demonstrates another statement by Keats: "Circumstances are like clouds continually gathering and bursting."

Copyright by Ira Nadel:, 2004. | Reviews | Ira Nadel
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Last Will and Testament
I give my soul to God.
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Forthcoming Titles
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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CZPictures of CZ from her 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.
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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