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Asking by Shawna Lemay

Reviewed by John Delacourt

Edmonton-based poet Shawna Lemay’s new book Asking takes its title from these lines by the poet Phyllis Webb:

“Listen. If I have known beauty

let’s say I came to it

asking …”

To come to beauty, and to “use life” as, perhaps, “a time of approaching,” (as Lemay quotes from Hélène Cixous in one of her poem-essays) might sound, on the face of it, to retrace the steps of an incursion on some highly contested ground. Beauty is a concept that may contain a multitude of meanings, but if it has survived with any resonance through the old critical battles of the last century and beyond to some imagined “post-ideological” world we’re all now reputed to be living in (please someone tell the newscasters), it might be convalescing, in some state of diplomatic immunity.

Lemay has chosen to ignore the dated edict that beauty must be passed over in silence or filtered through a cool detachment if it is to be approached at all as a subject. In Asking she has written a remarkable collection of lyrical essays and poems that address the stubborn, visceral impact of beauty. She is interested in the phenomena that will not be diminished to abstraction: the Vermeer that brings tears to our eyes despite all our defenses; the affliction known as Stendhal’s syndrome – a disorientation and ecstasy that an individual can experience when exposed to great art; or, yes, what would be defined by that old word “the sublime,” that which is capable of overwhelming us out there in the natural world beyond these screens.

Yet in Lemay’s elegant, sinuous lines she has also captured the quicksilver turns of questioning and the melancholy contemplation of the costs accrued of a life seduced by beauty. She can shock with a stark candor, hard won through the rigors of the poet’s craft, of her own pull towards ekphrasis - interpreting, confronting and in many ways inhabiting a work of art with as much precision as possible on the page. And when she writes of her own process and sense of place there is a particular quality that emerges - the closest approximation for it is the Japanese aesthetic wabi sabi – where imperfection, impermanence and the rough hewn texture of time are captured in form.

Lemay’s lyrical essays have that ability to strike the reader as wholly original, perhaps owing as much to the startling freshness of her observations and her eloquence, yet there are strong influences that Lemay has cited in conversation: the Notebook Entries of Polish poet Anna Kamieneska; the prose poetry of Roo Borson’s Rain; road; an open boat. Settling in to her particular form with Asking, she came upon Phil Hall’s award-winning book Killdeer, and found in Hall’s poem-essays something of a kindred approach. This seems right; as fellow poet Fred Wah has said in regard to this kind of poem-essay, what is offered here is “music at the heart of thinking.”

Emphasis on heart here, with Asking.

Asking is published by Seraphim Editions

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