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Spinning a Thread : Review of Subversive Sonnets by Pamela Mordecai


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Spinning a Thread : Review of Subversive Sonnets by Pamela Mordecai
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Mckenzie, Stephanie
Jamaica Observer
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Kingston, Jamaica
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Review of Subversive Sonnets by Pamela Mordecai ( TSAR publications, Toronto, 2012, 112 pages. Reviewed by: Stephanie McKenzie ) with the review published in the Jamaica Observer on January 27, 2013.

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3 THE SUNDAY OBSERVER, January 27, 2013 www.jamaicaobserver.com Bookends Title: Subversive Sonnets by Pamela Mordecai TSAR publications, Toronto, 2012, 112 pages. Reviewed by: Stephanie McKenzie S ubversive Sonnets (2012 M ordecais latest book of poetry, p ublished by TSAR publications in Toronto. It is rich, technically talented, wise, playful, and, indisputably, the strongest of Mordecais poetry collections (though all arev ery strong) to date. T he three most popular and well-known forms of sonnets are The P etrarchan, the Shakespearean, and the Spenserian, each with their own strict rhyme schemes and rhythmicp atterns. But perhaps one could say after reading S ubversive Sonnets t hat the most interesting might b e the Mordecai sonnet. Mordecai does not imitate the strict rules of traditional sonnet forms, though she maintains the spirit, at times, of Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnets. Each of Mordecais individual poems is a collection of different sonnets (that is, individual sonnets constitute different stanzas in Mordecais poems), and what is most striking about what Mordecai has borrowed from past sonnets is her dependence on rhyming couplets (the latter being a characteristic of Shakespeares sonnets which end with two rhyming lines) which she spreads throughout her poetry There are not many contemporary poets who can get away with rhyme these days who employ rhyme well but Mordecai is able to do so. In her poem Lace Mak ers, for instance, Mordecai, writing about attending a girls school in Jamaica as a child, appropriately recalls, in rhyme, a Jamaican childhood and the Jamaican poet Claude McKay who is to be admired as one of the first Jamaican poets to write in Jamaican Creole: . Claude McKay say he remember poinsettias in December. I recall red blooms as well: three old nuns, faces flushed and wrinkled up as mace, under tree conjuring waves of foaming Maltese lace. (from Lace Mak ers 9) Notably Mordecai turns not only in this poem but also in many others, as McKay did, to the island and the language that raised her In T emitope, the speaker claims, for example, we who come from islands know, / crac-cric, periphrastic, is so life go (37 But it is not only a love of Jamaica, love of language and love of the sonnet form which defines Subversive Sonnets It is love of literature, love of family, and, most memorably, the love of a lover or partner One of the collection s most beautiful poems is Who Loves Not Self, Loves Not, a response to Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins brilliant sonnets The Windhover and Gods Grandeur": . .But what if we despise that craft, sweet purling that your F ather set about as he wove every self each in his mothers womb? What if inside us, animus flares furious, eating all air, prayer? What then, most valorous when we say no to Gods grandeur in us? (from Who Loves Not Self Loves Not 37) As in Hopkins sonnets, there is a lot of wisdom and spiritual reflection here, and these things, as well as compassion, also dominate Mordecais verse, as the ending to Poor Execution aptly illustrates: . Call the roll of thousands and there is no lesson we can learn but that we did not do for our fellows all we needed to. And we will keep on dying till we do (57 P erhaps it is love for family, though, which comes through most strongly in Mordecais poems. There is a tribute to a grandfather Old Diaries), who shot a man for stealing his newspaper (4 and memories of a father steal the readers affection at the beginning of the book: Pops nibbled Latin through the English mass determined the demotic should not pass his ritual ears. Glum brood in tow, he went religiously every Sunday. When force-ripe progeny refused to go, he made do with the willing few. W e never saw him take communion though, which meant our virtuous P ops was always in Ora pro nobis, Maria a state of serious sin! (from Introibo ad altare dei 18) Another poem for a father, Nutrament, Temitope, in honour of a daughter and Zoey Stands up to Schrodinger s Cat, for a young granddaughter remind the reader of the main subject matter of all sonnets: love. However it is a love poem for the author s husband which rivals any sonnet Petrarch might have written for his beloved, Laura, and which is reason, in itself, to buy Subversive Sonnets Counting the W ays and Marrying T rue Minds echoes Elizabeth Barrett Brownings sonnet How do I love thee? Let me count the ways . . and Shakespeares sonnet Let me not to the marriage of true minds . . Mordecai begins with Brownings famous first line but counts in her own original way: Way One is forty on his next birthday. Way Two is pregnant with our first grandchild; . .Way Three? Way Three, Wash-Belly, is the last one to abide, for when, according to my OBG you set them sweetly in my sweet inside, for each W ay hanging on, there was a Way that saw the world outside and would not stay. So W ay Three, manic, mad, magnificent, speaks the last lines in this soliloquy of how your cells have swelled inside my cells, of how your flesh has truly become me. (35 And taking off on Brownings concluding lines and, if God choose, / I shall but love thee better after death Mordecai employs her trademark humour (well known by this point to not only readers of Subversive Sonnets but also readers of her other w orks) and also her spiritual focus: . So our love h as bobbed and weaved to pass the edge of doom. No mates in heaven yet we have a pact. Youve promised you will not ignore me who has loved you many ways. I, beyond strife, will once and finally be still, . . . touching only on God and his fine Son, consummate bride groom, and on Wisdom, she through whom I lit on you, sweet other one in whom I found three perfect Ways to love. So let it be. Awash in honeyed obstacles, youll make a keen addition to the choir. Ill be around. (36 Small wonder that this book is dedicated For Martin, and small wonder that the strongest poem in Subversive Sonnets is a fierce love poem. This is not to say that Mordecais collection is without its haunting moments, for Mordecai deals, as she has dealt before, with troubling subject matter. Bill Belfast and Lizzie Bell tells the story of a slave in Halifax, Canada, who Efcaped on Thurfday evening (the old spelling here is taken from historical documents, it can be presumed, as Mordecai notes the poem is in part a found poem") and, being known to have attempted twice to board a ship / which lay in harbour, bound to Newfoundland, is being looked for. Belfast tells the reader, though, that he has gained . berth / on the Creole boat bound for London town, and that he is waiting for his love to join him: I wait amid barrels of salted cod / for Lizzie Bell, slave like me, let as laundress to / soldiers in barracks on Grottingen Street (63 follows, Thomas Thistlewood and Tom, is bonechilling in its depiction of slaverys crimes. Subversive Sonnets ends in a most appropriate manner with Yarn Spinner and a comment about the power of language and literature: And are you sorry for the yarns you make? No, for they keep the children warm. What if you die spinning a thread? Die, yes, but never dead . (79 Literature, of course, keeps many things alive. Humour, hope, love, and, inevitably, writers. Yarn spinner that she is, Pamela Mordecai has produced another successful book again, her strongest poetry collection to date. And one thing that stands out after reading this book of poems is an observation that many have also made speaking of Shak espeare: there is some range of vocabulary here! How many words Mordecai has at her disposal should be an interest in Mordecai scholarship to come, I would think. What she does with that language is another. Pamela Mordecai was born and grew up in Jamaica, and educated there and in the USA She and her family immigrated to Canada in 1994. A former language arts teacher with a PhD in English, she writes poetry, and short fiction. Her previous collections of poetry are Journey Poem (1989 de man: a performance poem (1995 Certifiable (2001 The T rue Blue of Islands (2005 P ink Icing and Other Stories appeared in 2006. In 2001, she and her husband, Martin, published a reference work entitled Culture and Customs of Jamaica in Greenwood Presss Culture and Customs series. Her writing for children is widely collected and well known internationally El Numero Uno a play for young people, had its world premiere at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People inT oronto in 2010. D D r r S S t t e e p p h h a a n n i i e e M M c c K K e e n n z z i i e e i i s s a a n n A A s s s s o o c c i i a a t t e e P P r r o o f f e e s s s s o o r r i i n n t t h h e e E E n n g g l l i i s s h h P P r r o o g g r r a a m m m m e e , G G r r e e n n f f e e l l l l C C a a m m p p u u s s , M M e e m m o o r r i i a a l l U U n n i i v v e e r r s s i i t t y y , C C o o r r n n e e r r B B r r o o o o k k , N N e e w w f f o o u u n n d d l l a a n n d d . I I n n 1 1 9 9 9 9 7 7 , s s h h e e w w a a s s t t h h e e L L o o u u i i s s e e B B e e n n n n e e t t t t E E x x c c h h a a n n g g e e F F e e l l l l o o w w a a t t t t h h e e U U n n i i v v e e r r s s i i t t y y o o f f t t h h e e W W e e s s t t I I n n d d i i e e s s , M M o o n n a a C C a a m m p p u u s s . Spinning a Thread

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