Monday, March 12, 2018

My Review of Journeywoman by Carolyne Van Der Meer (Inanna, 2017)

In her valuable and concise preface the author, Carolyne Van Der Meer, advises us that “The word ‘journeyman’ refers to an individual who has completed an apprenticeship and has been fully trained in a trade—but who is not yet a master.” 

Her “journeywoman” then is about the journey made by one woman and by many women, through childhood, womanhood and motherhood, towards mastery, enlightenment, maturity. The fifty poems which comprise this collection, Journeywoman, are snapshots taken on that journey.

The volume is divided into four sections of unequal length. The first section is one of the longest. Manoeuvring  is an unexpectedly delightful title for the section which deals with relationships; with mother, with husband, with son, with others. 

Van Der Meer excels at titles and the first poem is entitled (S)mothering which is a poem in itself. This poem sets the tone for the rest of the collection, with its deceptively simple language, the use of unexpected commonplace phrases, the questioning of herself and of others, and the responses. It ranges over three generations, author, her mother, her child. “So who is real? / the ones we are, / have created, the ones who reappear”

I like how we are gently invited to consider mundane common tasks and ponder possible deeper meanings without any sledgehammer language, any obtrusive signposts of the significant. Consider how in The Sewing Box the replacing of a broken button on a husband’s jacket cuff becomes such an important event and leads to such wonderful details and memories.  And see how the repeated, almost off-hand, phrase, “No one will notice”, becomes so important at the end.

Similarly in Folding the Sheets the details of the process become a sort of advance and retreat country dance which ends with the wonderfully evocative, “fold it crisply / into a perfect square”. We are left to imagine the identity of the other person, the precise relationship.

Van Der Meer is good at knowing how much to tell us and how much trust to put in the reader. She is also good at including detailed descriptions, fooling us sometimes into thinking she is telling us everything. In Windows, Lesson at Masala Cooking School and in Homemade Pasta on New Year’s Eve for instance the great accretion of details still leaves central questions of relationships open to the reader’s probing.

The second section Travelogue is the longest and there are accounts of incidents and thoughts arising from trips to Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Spain. There are poems which involve literary figures, Oscar Wilde’s stature in Galway and grave in Paris, the Brontes in Yorkshire and in County Down, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega, the portraits of writers in stained glass at the National Library, Dublin, and even Jim Morrison. 

Anyone who visited Yeats’ isolated County Galway tower can appreciate that first line of Visiting Yeats at Thoor Ballylee, “It was as though the world had stopped”.

But the most impressive poems in this section may be the more personal ones, Buying Sandals in Oltrarno, where she gets herself “a pair of handmade / Roman sandals, the kind / in the children’s Bibles / her mother used to read”, and Leather Shop in the Via Francesco Crispi,  where boots or shoes are purchased, “I settle on / burnt sienna you on lime green”. As elsewhere in the collection a raft of details are included but the reader is left to figure out exactly the relationship of the couple or the significance of the incidence.

Have those solid Irish midland towns, Mullingar and Athlone, ever before figured at the start and ending of a poem? I doubt it. In Atonement the enigmatic journey begins “By Mullingar, we were through the worst of it” and ends “you took the exit for Athlone / before I could tell you / where to go”. The hint of “alone” in Athlone is great.

Section three’s stark title, The Cancer Journey, points to a different, traumatic journey. These six poems are a multi-layered meditation of the treatment journey, the drugs and medication, the fear of relapse, a fellow-traveller who did not survive and the scars left behind by the disease and the treatment.

The first poem in this sequence, ABVD, deals directly with the 4-drug combination used in the chemotherapy treatment by naming each of the drugs and meditating at length upon it, its name, origins, history, effects on the body.

“Vinblastine sin blasts me / my silent joke, never spoken / another colourless poison / first isolated by men called Noble and Beer / names unlike their protégé, found / in a Madagascar periwinkle plant / so pretty and exotic / so nasty and toxic”.

There is no sugar coating here, no poetic softening of the reality. The poem ends with a simple plea: “ABVD me / back to life”.

The final section of eight poems entitled Fellow Travellers has poems about women, some named, some well-known, others not well-known, some anonymous. These include Emily Bronte, Saint Agnes and Lady Bathe who is interred with her husband, Sir Lucas Dillon in Trim, Ireland in a tomb known as “The Tomb of the Jealous Man and Woman”.

There are two poems in this section concerning the issue of Muslims in Canada, particularly Quebec, with reference to the Reasonable Accommodation debate. The first, The Philosophy of Hijab is in the voice of a Muslim female and the second, Prayer on a Train, describes an encounter with a Muslim originally from Iraq, who prays on a train. It ends with a thought: “I realize she is more / sure, praying on a train / in a foreign land / than so many of us at home”.

The collection ends with a four-section meditation on the nun, Jeanne Le Ber, described as North America’s First Recluse who lived in Ville-Marie which later became Montreal. This was as a result of the poet’s retreat in the convent in which the recluse had lived. The silence, the meditation has such an effect on the poet that in the last stanza the poet and the recluse have become one and the ending could apply both to the art and craft work of Jeanne and to the work of the poet: “God willing the images I stitch / will stay”.

So Carolyne Van der Meer’s Journeywoman ends where all journeys end, with the hope that something will remain, some scrap of memory or image or writing to outlast the life.

The book is beautifully produced and edited by the Canadian publishing house, Inanna, whose mission is to publish a multiplicity of voices, particularly fresh new Canadian voices, that speak to the heart and tell truths about the lives of the broad spectrum and endless diversity of Canadian women. This volume certainly fulfils that promise.

The cover is especially striking and features a specially created painting by the Montreal artist, Ariane Côté, also entitled Journeywoman.

Journeywoman can be purchased on the Inanna website here:
or on Amazon here:

Well done to all concerned.

Michael Farry
March 2018