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Ballads and body poems

Poetry reviews
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Poets Jancis Andrews (left, front) and Kim Clark (centre, front) launched their books in Sechelt last October. (Back row: Jan DeGrass and Gwen Southin).

There’s a fine balance between anger and despair in the poetry collection of Sechelt’s Jancis M. Andrews, titled The Ballad of Mrs. Smith (Hedgerow Press).

The reader follows Mrs. Smith’s journey from her wealthy British Properties home and a knife-sharp husband on her descent to a cardboard shelter in an underground parking lot.

The poems were written when Andrews attended First United Church in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — a church that offered a safe place for prostitutes.

Andrews’ observations of the characters Mrs. Smith meets on these mean streets and those who live in the rooming houses where social services places her are profoundly intense and often compassionate.

Images abound of Pender Street’s Chinese people: “How can I enter a language shaped like twigs?” and of the friendly Peaches who tells the desperate stories of her mother and father. Mrs. Smith reaches out to an abandoned, one-eyed cat, and she holds a drunken conversation with Old Joe in Crab Park as they listen to the music of the water.

At an October book launch, an emotional Andrews read from her poem, Free Breakfast on the Sunday before Welfare Wednesday, the story of how 12 men wait for the last small pot of porridge, knowing that six will be fed and six will not. It is the essence of poverty.

“And here is the thin skin of white heat simmering on a famine of government help, the slow boil that might explode, burn down the house.”

Inevitably, there’s a bit of Andrews in Mrs. Smith, she said, with the difference that Andrews is a teetotaller whereas Mrs. Smith often sees life through eyes fogged by alcohol.  

      “All the poems are based on fact, not fiction,” Andrews said. “They were the only way I could relieve my feelings at what I saw and experienced there.”

•••

There are two big clues as to how to read Sit You Waiting, a collection of poetry by Kim Clark (Caitlin Press). One clue is contained in the poem MS Abduction that describes in medical terms the stealthy pace of the multiple sclerosis that has occupied her body since mid-life and has transformed her writing career.

“My body held poetry for ransom,” she writes.

At the Festival of the Written Arts last year, Clark spoke about her prose book, Attemptations, and she told the audience that it was when the MS took hold of her that her words began to flow onto paper. The disease (or dis-ease, as she calls it) had opened up some access to the “poetic packets of plasma data.”

Clark has come a long way, very quickly, to a level of poetry that is original, intelligent and oddly sexy.  

The second clue as to how to read Clark’s poetry comes in the form of a helpful cover note by poet George Bowering. He suggests the reader begin with the poem Three Days on a Train In and Out of Dreaming, written during a train trip across Australia. It’s full of word play, mind play and speculative observations borne of that fine line between thinking and dreaming.  

Both books, The Ballad of Mrs. Smith and Sit You Waiting are available at local bookstores for $16 and $16.95 respectively.


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