- Writing Lovers: Reading Canadian Love Poetry by Women
At the heart of Méira Cook's newest book, Writing Lovers, is a quest to express the inexpressible: love. But how does one write 'a detached and lucid account of a subject that ... demands a passionate response?' Cook describes love, or love in writing, as an event that 'exceeds all categories of expression and signification while at the same time attempting – ceaselessly, repeatedly, ardently – to articulate itself.' In each chapter, then, Cook tests the limits of the language of love, exploring its possibilities in the writing of seven diverse Canadian women poets.
Cook focuses on metaphor as the central figure in writings about love. And the shock of metaphor, as it is used in 'breaching borders, conflating images, yoking opposites,' is key to Cook's own methodology; she, too, breaches borders and yokes together disparate entities. One of the book's greatest strengths is its sharp and creative connection of seemingly unrelated writers and their texts. The authors were chosen, Cook states, because of her 'having fallen in love with their work.' Which could, of course, cause some major critical shortcomings. Yet Cook assiduously addresses and contests these possible shortcomings in her opening chapter, which sets up the theoretical framework for the book. Drawing from sundry critical perspectives on the language of love, Cook situates her project first in the work of such varied Canadian writer-critics as Rosemary Sullivan, Anne Carson, and Steve McCaffery. Then, in a somewhat ahistorical discussion of work by Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva, and Lacan, Cook highlights the failures of language in each of their texts. However, Cook's claim to an anti-thematic approach is not entirely persuasive, as her choice of texts – critical, theoretical, and literary – relies upon the writers' fundamental engagement with 'amorous discourse' and, consequently, [End Page 607] their treatment of the theme of love. Hence, Cook's study can be read as a post-poststructuralist feminist reading of love poetry by Canadian women that is paradoxically fuelled by a romantic sensibility.
Of particular interest in Writing Lovers are Cook's chapters on Elizabeth Smart's ornate prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and Cree writer Louise Bernice Halfe's Governor-General-nominated long poem Blue Marrow. Each of these two chapters lucidly captures the metaphorical impulse of Cook's central argument, with a close and careful reading of the work in question. Cook's discussion of Kristeva's notion of abject desire, for instance, explores Smart's text from a fresh and compelling angle that counters the many obsessively autobiographical studies of By Grand Central Station. Likewise, Cook's analysis of Blue Marrow is a particularly absorbing exploration of love's breath in the face of cultural colonialism, grappling with the politics of translation, transliteration, and cross-cultural communication. (Interestingly, this chapter is itself inadvertently marginalized; Halfe's name – perhaps the least recognizable of the poets discussed – is in fact excluded from the list of poets on the jacket copy.) On a negative note, Cook's reading of Dionne Brand's poetry does occasionally display the trappings that Cook overtly seeks to avoid: that is, a privileging of Brand's socio-political imperative, particularly in the use of Brand's own critical writings to position the poems. But the book's overall insistence on a fervently creative and, above all, exigent study of love's expression trumps these minor concerns.
And so Cook generates a series of 'achronological essais' in the most literal sense, for each chapter can be read as a discrete attempt to work through the book's main questions, without any expectation of a final or absolute judgment. In this sense, Writing Lovers is an admirable, enviable, project; Cook's passion for her subject engages the reader through an active voice that is both critical and creative, exploring why 'amorous discourse leaves neither narrator nor reader intact.'
Triny Finlay, Department of English, University of Toronto