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Celebrating the Eternal Feminine


I am that Woman by Vanessa Shields       Black Moss Press    Ca $17

I rarely review poetry, partly because I’m time poor and because temperamentally I am probably best suited to reviewing fiction. Nevertheless, some poets are very close to my heart. I dip into Eliot, Plath, Whitman, Keats, Ashbery, Bishop, even the odd line of Ginsberg, again and again. It’s the conciseness of poetry I love, the world freeze-framed, reality eye-blinked..

So when Canadian blogger and Books Now! subscriber Vanessa Shields asked me to review her first book of poetry, I am That Woman, I was delighted. It’s published this month and I’m happy to devote one of my last Books Now! posts before a four week hiatus, to her work.

IATW is a celebration of femaleness in all its rawness, sweat, blood, love and confusions. There are 60 poems in the collection. Some deal humorously with the difficulties of the post-partum body, as in How to Sneeze After You’ve Given Birth Twice; others with the challenges of parenting, coping with fretful kids, trying to write when the kids are vying for your attention. Some are souvenirs of childhood, the nascent blooming of adolescent’s female sexual power, others explore the power of friendship between women.

Shields is tough. In Using Cancer to Get Out of a Speeding Ticket a woman tells the police officer she was speeding in order to get home and take her cancer medication, when in reality she wants to see her favourite TV show. The twist is that the cancer is real – only the protagonist is in remission. This tension builds great irony, as well as raising a wry smile.

At her best, Shields tackles the great subjects, sex and death, with passion and compassion. In The Final Visitation, the poet visits a dying relative and gazes at his chest, now “Grey and black hair./Dappling the surface/Like seaweed on rippled skin sea”. Later, in Casket, she talks about the dead man,“ I have to hold him differently now/Not just in my arms/On my shoulders/In my blood.” This is vivid imagery which lingers.

Shields’ love poems are earth-woman rich, and she understands both sex and love in equal measure. One of my favourite poems is Where is the Love? Here, a woman and her partner try to rediscover their pre-kids attraction for each other in a world full of bottles and nappies. “Where is the love in this poem?/… In the passing glance he gives me as I wash the dishes/… in the way he tells me I’m beautiful even when I haven’t brushed my/hair and I can’t remember the last time I took a shower.” It’s these small details of recognisable everyday life that build this collection into a memorable portrait of a mother, wife, lover, friend and eternal woman. This is a debut full of promise and I look forward to seeing what Vanessa does next.