“Calligraphy”, the opening poem in Panicle, Gillian Sze’s most recent book of poetry, is a masterful distillation of the emotional work of poetry.
In this poem, the art of calligraphy is deconstructed alongside the act of writing: the grinding down of the inkstick, the work that precedes the first stroke of the brush, and the slowing down required to still the hand and heart to allow the first stroke to lift from the page. From this powerful beginning, Sze expands to reflect on life as lived, on the moments we carry along with us like failed strokes, moments that bear the weight and meaning of experience and inform us when we sit down to write.
The slowing down that Sze captures so beautifully in “Calligraphy” permeates the whole of this collection. In each of its four parts—Underway; Stagings; Guillemets; and Panicle—Sze sifts and probes connections, the personal and those we have with literature, art and place, and renders them to us in language both precise and expansive. Reflecting on a winter storm in “February”, Sze parses the hard work needed to hold onto love. She writes “Overnight winter dropped on us and bent the hedges in our backyard so they low impossibly near to the ground.” The poem concludes with the hedges slowly lifting against the weight of snow. That so much about a relationship can be conveyed in the observed effects of weather is dazzling. This incisive reading of the world around us is evident throughout the book, though perhaps most strikingly in “Proof” when she writes: “I want something in me to do something irreparable, irreversible in you.”
Regardless of the subject, Sze has a tremendous capacity to distill a moment or an observation down to its essence and have us look again, see anew. The nine pieces in “Guillemets”, her creative translation of Roland Giguere’s “Pouvoir du noir,” reflect on Giguere’s characterization of black as light. In this response, Sze begins by rejecting white. She writes: “White is nothing, no knock or trace, white leaks Lethean, ossifies and mums.” Then follows with a sustained meditation on black becoming—“the black is a waking”, “who says black is knowable”, “know everything but black”—all of which appear alongside artist and poet Jessica Hiemstra’s evocative black and white sketches. The effect of this collaboration amplifies and complicates the play of black against white, of black as light. As in all of her ekphrastic poems, Sze challenges us to see differently by revealing her own intricate and layered reading of a work of art.
Shortlisted for the 2018 Quebec Writers’ Federation A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry, Panicle is a compelling and rewarding book. Not only are the poems beautiful and insightful, they vary in style and subject matter and travel us through a world of love and loss, of art and beauty, of nature, history and desire. There is no better way to invite a reader to this work than with Sze’s own words: “ahead, where our gaze meets the sky, where the sky breathes in the blue hue of evening, a small gasp, a small ah.”
by Gillian Sze
ECW Press, 2017, 90 pp., $18.95
Jody Baltessen is an archivist and poet in Winnipeg.