Friday, 6 June 2014

“The Fleece Era” separates sheep from goats

Joanna Lilley
The Fleece Era
Brick Books, 2014
100 pp. ISBN 978-1-926829-89-0

If there’s a special afterlife for poets, both good and bad, Joanna Lilley should find herself in the most pleasant of post-bodily states. Seldom does a writer manage to weave such an assortment of different tales into a unified whole, and though these poems are not directly connected by sequence or linear storyline, they manage to convey what it means to be human and interacting with others of varying degree of dysfunction and with an increasingly bipolar natural environment.  

Lilley’s lines are consistently well-crafted yet remain unpredictable. Her language is the perfect medium between the sparse and the ornate, and The Fleece Era would easily fit on shelves containing both academic narratives and volumes of people's poetry.

The broad appeal of this, Joanna Lilley’s first collection of poetry, lies not only in its accessible diction but in its easy-to-relate-to subject matter – most of us at one time or another finding ourselves in similar situations as described in these various vignettes.

There are so many poems in The Fleece Era that could count toward my list of favourites that the challenge to relay them all in a single review would be overly daunting and not really feasible so I’ll convey a few of the highlights that left me both envious of Lilley’s talent as a poet and lamenting that I’m presently (and will be in the future) unable to duplicate the level of artistry present in her metaphors and the images that are well-timed, pertinent to each piece, but never overblown or scribed to wow adjudicators of CanLit awards.

In terms of sheer personal and emotive quality, “If I Had Children” was one of this volume’s most moving episodes:

If I Had Children

If I had children
I would have to stop
reading the book I’m reading
and stop writing the book
I’m writing and stop worrying
about how much sleep
I don’t get and I, who cannot listen
to the weather forecast all the way through,
would have to pay attention
for the rest of my life to the rest of theirs.
Every night, I would lay them
under a ceiling and have to remember
to keep them warmer
in winter than in the summer.
Every day, I would have to feed them
food that isn’t food
that’s killing me. Every night,
I would lay my hand on
their hearts to feel the beat
I take too long to find behind
my own fleshy breast, my wadded ribs.
And eventually I would have to explain
why grown-ups can’t sit at the table
politely like children can, why
adults argue, tell each other lies.
Eventually, I would admit
that people firing guns and dropping
bombs do have a choice.
As I was dying, all I would have
to bequeath would be a million pounds
of greenhouse gas emissions.
As I was dying, I’d forget
I’d promised myself never to confess
I nearly didn’t have them
because the human race was almost over
and it was clear who was going to win.

© 2014 Joanna Lilley

An “environmental poem” has never resonated so personally and become so human, eschewing the pitfalls of blatant didacticism that entrap many well-meaning poets attempting to write of our species’ incessant harm to our planet.

Familial relations and a pervading theme of loss resonate in a number of these poems, a notable example that can be found in “Aunt”:


I stand in late light
at my nephew’s attic window
as he sleeps. Below,
his mother weeps.
I leak the powerlessness of aunts.
I can’t fling words far enough
for a sister to catch.
Even easy ones:
he’s not coming back.
I’m going to chuck what I have left
out the window, go home
and start a college fund.
Abstract nouns tap like rain.
Proper nouns thwack like hail.
Verbs – wet snow – won’t settle.
No more words. No weather.
Only the moon, which
will stay a comma
this entire night.

© 2014 Joanna Lilley

Lilley takes note of her surroundings and the individuals inhabiting them with a precision and detail that the rest of us, unless mindfully attuned, tend to ignore and as a result fail to discover insights into everyday events and people that the author opens to us with the adeptness of a veteran practitioner of Zen.

Notes At A Concert

I hear notes before the bow
touches strings, notes in the air
around the violinist’s wrists,
in the space inside his shirt
as a shoulder lifts.
He’s tapered, flared and frantic,
the oddest looking, yet the only
one with ironed creases in his trousers.
The guitarist’s mouth is easy-smile.
His stomach swells below his black roll-neck:
good wine, seafood, the occasional
game of squash. He’s San Francisco.
His slapping hands
look as soft as a solicitor’s
but there must be calluses.
The double bass player’s fingers are thick sticks,
his forehead broad. His lips curl
towards his nostrils; he’s Rossetti’s Beatrice –
he has the hair.
The lights go up.
I was in good company:
the woman who didn’t give me a job,
next to the trainer who thinks my dog has depression.
The man who wants the government
to stop killing wolves sits behind the painter
who pulls her feet to the seat like a child.
She’s here each time I come,
trying, like me, to pay attention to genius.

© 2014 Joanna Lilley

English by birth and having spent the first 39 of her 47 years in the U.K., Joanna Lilley is a fine adopted member of a new Canadian poetry (having lived here since 2006, presently residing in the Yukon). It will be exciting to see what observations she presents to us the next time around, and how her first decade in Canada has affected her exceptional poetics and storytelling.

– Andreas Gripp