2016, 96 pp., $18.00,
Sandra Ridley’s fourth collection of poetry, Silvija, adds to her already impressive body of writing. The book, which is organized into nine sections, situates Ridley as one of the preeminent Canadian poets of her generation. Her writing is comparable to that of her Canadian foremothers: Erin Mouré and Nicole Brossard. Like those two generational poets, Ridley’s majestic use of language is a revelation in poetic discourse designed to both reveal and conceal meaning. She has an uncanny ability to create dark and secret narratives. Her body of work—“body” being the operative word in feminist writing—suggests a physical body of a woman in a hostile world that neither honours nor forgives.
With John the Apostle as a messenger of God sent to this earth, a new interpretation of Genesis in The New Testament defines the beginnings of this world, preparing humanity for the coming messiah. “The Word,” in this context, is interpreted as referring to Jesus. With these origins of Christianity, language and creation are forever linked. A power imbalance, with scriptural origins, organized thought into binaries, such as speech/writing, presence/absence, male/female. Consider the negation of “the word” in the opening passage of Silvija, one of five sections bearing the title “In Praise of the Healer”:
Swallow the word.
Swallow the tongue.
the fullness in the throat.
“The Word,” in all its manifestations, is ordered away. This is a return to nothingness, beyond language, beyond the written word. Northrop Frye’s archetypal criticism concludes that the displacing power in all texts finally derives from the displacing power of the Bible. Ridley constantly evokes Christian philosophy and imagery in order to subvert it, creating a new conceptual Eden based in language.
“Dirge,” the final section of the collection, supports a pre-Genesis, meta-linguistic hope:
We fail to name this right / without the words
For lapsing / lilies / wilted / in the beginning
Wind caught nothing / your leaf unscrawled.
The references to being “without the words” and “in the beginning” decisively take us back to Genesis once more. “We fail to name this right” recalls the word in the act of creation, but acknowledges something has gone wrong. The slashes break phrases and words, break the cohesion of the syntax, analogues to the chain of events the biblical Cain must break. It strongly suggests a new narrative must be written. An innovative discourse needs to support a female narrative, one that no longer normalizes violence against a woman’s body and soul. The biblical diction, equating the body and worship, is evident throughout the text. In one of five short chapters called “In Praise of the Healer”:
After the long sought
Say, with my body I thee worship.
The spiritual/Christian imagery is foregrounded by the book’s front matter:
1. Silva. A wood, forest, woodland; in poetry, a piece composed, as it were, at a start, in a kind of Rapture; a title for a collection of pieces, esp. of poems.
Sylvan, Silvana, Silvanae. A being of the woods; a deity or spirit of the woods; the Goddess of the woods; proper name of a divinity of fields and forests; an imaginary being supposed to haunt woods and groves.
This is a new form of Genesis evoked by the author, where she provides the definitions, but still maintains the Christian reference of Rapture. But this is a world of nature, synonymous with a “Goddess,” not a patriarchal God.
Silvija considers trauma and survival from an intuitive, instinctive approach:
Holder of the dog’s bones / night-fallen creek / current home
Borne back / broken / the limp body / still withering / we will
Never depend upon our eyes.
This is a longing for a sensual world. The visual world, after all, is embedded with language. And this is part of the discourse of pain and trauma. The above passage I’ve quoted is from the section titled “Farther / Father.” The father’s authoritative discourse contrasts the confessional voice of the poem. The fragmented writing style seems indicative of how the pain in relationships threatens the autonomy of the individual. But there is still the cataclysmic beauty of relationships; they have the ability to both terrify and validate us.
The subject matter of Silvija certainly presents a challenge to Ridley: How do you articulate personal trauma in a universal way, bound by the limits of language and representation? Eden need not be a literal place, but a place in the spirit and soul. The language of the Bible is also the language of power and control. It’s part of the patriarchal power of a father to dominate and abuse his daughter. The first page of “Farther / Father” introduces many of the discursive strategies to be found in the text:
Our dead call out our dead / you show your filthy face
You useless tit / you runt / you piece of shit / a shame
Unleashed by plain-talk / begging before a threshing
From the old butcher / your leather strap / unbelted
Crescent buckle for a skinning / hiding / each of us/
Slickened with blood / held down in your hinterland
Each barren mile unabating / say mercy.
The repetition of the word “dead” foretells a spiritual death, a return of absence, back to nothingness. The italics represent the voice of the father, how it is ingrained in the consciousness of the victim; these are ruminations survivors of trauma will recognize. The “say mercy,” another familiar refrain in the work, entwines the discourse of the paternal father with that of God as Father, a punishing Father of the Old Testament. The vulgar and abusive language of the father is part of the fallen world, the fallen body. This debasement of a young girl or young woman is represented by language as “plain-talk,” showing the banality of language in the face of violence and oppression. The “hinterland” suggests that violence is inherent to—and language embedded in—the landscape. There is a need for a new language, but it may be impossible to find. A woman’s discourse remains elusive. The Canadian landscape is still viewed through the European sensibility of our ancestors and the patriarchal and colonial world vision, often synonymous with brute force and violence: “say mercy.”
Ridley’s previous (and third) book, The Counting House (BookThug 2013), employs some of the discursive strategy of Silvija, particularly the section in The Counting House called “Lax Tabulation.” Each short poem is titled with the word “Recent” and then a slash and a second word is added. “Recent/approval,” “Recent/fraught” and “Recent/subversive” are just a few of the many titles. Words and phrases in the poem are separated by wide spaces, a seeming subversion of the lyrical form. Throughout The Counting House, Ridley’s language evokes the push-pull of interpersonal relationships, and, once again, the power imbalance of relationships resonates with the authority of the Bible and creation:
Your opinion was different.
Your theory on how roses should grow.
O, how you worked on your Eden for twenty-four years
(from “A General Tale”)
The discourse of power held over a woman’s body and soul never entirely abates. The long poem “Testamonium” incorporates the philosophy of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. These texts are crafted into Ridley’s poetry, never presented as a didactic lesson for the reader. More closely, the experience of The Counting House reflects a cycle of pain/longing/pain.
Ridley’s second collection, Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press 2011), explores the kill-or-cure mentality of psychiatric institutions and our culture of illness. The poet’s fragmented language and unusual punctuation—often using colons between words and phrases—tears our physical and spiritual bodies to the bone with the language of the institutions. Medical and (pseudo?) scientific terms enter the discourse, much like the Latin medical terms (such as “lamina” and “sulcus”) that appear in Silvija.
In “Epilogue,” the final section of Post-Apothecary, a line is written over and over, across and down the page: “I thought I heard a girl’s voice in the woods.” For Ridley, the act of writing and speaking is a form of creation and can be an act of rebellion, no matter how subtle or timid it’s beginnings.
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
A betrayal of nature leads Coleridge’s mariner to utter the famous lines above while stranded on a ship surrounded undrinkable saltwater. Ridley offers us a different sort of spiritual thirst and hope for redemption in “Vigil / Vestige”:
We murmur for sleep after slaughter—
and would drink from any
Maybe this is a woman’s hope against hope of accepting the world as it is, rather than complaining about circumstances. While the imagery of the albatross is central to the “Mariner,” Ridley weaves the image of a dove throughout Silvija: “the sun-downed / Dove-wing”; “the dove interrupted”; the “long-drowned dove.” These images return us to nature—the dove often aligned with a woman’s soul, a symbol of peace—and how nature can be both cruel and kind.
The short section “Clasp” is written in a prose style. The voice here is very different than when dealing with the predatory father, more accusatory: “You are what I am. You cause as much sorrow.” The speaker seems to be addressing a lover, or perhaps even herself, echoing the voice of the father from previous poems: “You won’t get mercy.” (This is the same phrase used by the father, but here it is not italicized.) No one owns language; it filters into our perceptions of our selves and our world.
I can’t explain—others perhaps might. And yet, I can’t forget, especially when there is nothing to be lost by it. I assure you, I can’t help myself. I can’t breathe.
Rage. Sorrow. Acceptance. The psychology of trauma. Trying to breathe. Trying to find a voice.
The ending of “Farther / Father” showcases Ridley’s deft handling of the themes of physical and psychological trauma:
The long shadow / incalculable / we await the whimper
Eyes lowering / descent of the casket / no axis spinning /
Stars dying / no / they are already gone.
This signifies the end of the abusive father. With a tip of the hat to T.S. Eliot, the world, and in this case the father’s life, ends not with a bang but with a “whimper.” Nothing is as universal as death. Like the stars “already gone,” the spiritual death came long before the physical death.
A world of experience is expressed in the final page of “’Dirge”:
Do you understand?
Do I understand?
Are you laughing now?
Do you understand?
This is difficult for you to say.
This is difficult for you to say.
Redemption never comes systematically in line or verse. This is a subtle and moving use of language, of lines, empty spaces, and voices. In the final line, mirroring language through repetition is used to the woman’s advantage, showing a gain in knowledge, wisdom and strength in one last confrontation with the father.
Silvija is the work of a courageous artist; Ridley is unafraid to explore beyond the cloak of discourse. There’s a strong cohesion of meaning between the strange and elusive structure and the subject matter of the text.
There’s a great sense of self-mythologizing in Silvija, perhaps due to the nature of the subject matter, perhaps as a way of drawing the reader into the text. Here are the book’s final words:
You give my hands the weight of your body.
Rest in me.
What I mean is this is where I choose to die.
There’s a terror in this text; there’s a terror in life. Sandra Ridley is a poet who seems to ride the terror, and her writing is as mysterious as it is beautiful and life affirming. Possibly, she is the healer in “In Praise of the Healer.” Possibly, she is the best Canadian poet of her generation.
Robert Anderson is a visual artist, poet and essayist. His critical essays on art and poetry have appeared in Fjords Review Online and Canadian Art Online. He is the author of the 43-page chapbook The Hospital Poems (BookThug 2015) and the related self-published art chapbook The Other Side of There (2015). His poetry has been published in such journals as Rampike, House Organ and b after c. His latest work is the long serial poem Code 7. For five years he worked as the volunteer archivist at The Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto along with the late Emily Macnaughton.