Review of “Enter the Chrysanthemum”

Excerpt from The Chronicle Herald (Halifax, NS), August 23, 2009, p. NS1

Enter the Chrysanthemum is another order of experience….Lam looks inward–to the self, the genealogy, the home, the local. Her emphasis is on the pictorial–as symbolic of the intimate:

“My favourite of (my mother’s) paintings/ was of chrysanthemums…// Flesh flowed from the fuller (outline of a petal), tipped/with yellow or lavender, until every crown/ bloomed amid the throng of leaves.// If only I had been paper,/ a delicate, upturned face stroked/ with such precise tenderness.”

These deft lines allow us to imagine the only implied, but deeply hurtful, estrangement between daughter and mother. Similarly, Lam’s persona remembers parental battles this way:

“How I loved him then, my fellow hostage./ He sat the way I would sit, beneath her/ brandished voice.  The door creaked./ She found me curled and cramped on the floor.”

Once a lawyer, Lam scrutinizes the telling, domestic detail.  Milk, a poem about nursing, pictures the infant as a “Small, sweaty cannibal,” whose mouth, a “tiny machine…/ nibbled and sucked the hours.”  Water Park is a rare poem twice-over: It is one of the few in which Lam considers the larger world and one of the few Canadian poems about our Afghanistan “mission” and our losses.

“Yesterday, six Canadian soldiers/ rode upon a gravel road near Kandahar/ to their deaths. Sixty maimed./ Gouged lives bleeding into a pocked earth./ Parents, children, grandparents/ far away from our splashes and delighted shrieks (at the water park)…./ Suffering, pleasure meted out/ indifferently. This cold clear rain/ under the bluest sky.”

Juxtaposing foreign trauma and homely joy, Lam insists that it is their interchangeable reality, in an oblivious universe, that makes us one.  A decent notion in an accomplished collection.

George Elliott Clarke, a Nova Scotian-born author and poet, teaches literature at the University of Toronto.  In 2001, he won the Governor General’s Award for poetry.