Wascana Review - Sumac's Red Arms

Reviewed by: Darryl Whetter

With her debut book of poems, Sumac's Red Arms, the itinerant Karen Shklanka joins an esteemed company of physician-writers which includes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rabelais and Chekov. One of the back covers of the (American) National Poetry Foundation's journal Saagetrieb reproduces a page from the prescription pad of William Carlos Williams. Shklanka has worked as a physician in small or isolated Canadian communities. That medical work informs, inspires and solidifies much of this debut collection.

Several poems, and several of the most memorable, transform Shklanka's years of medical experience into the metaphoricity and beaded ideation of poetry, not mere anecdote. "Moose Factory, Ontario," "The Girl from Attawapiskat," "First Pregnancy," "Portal," "Dear God" and "Death Certificate" are overtly medical. In the latter, a rural physician practices a kind of stick-shift oncology, driving with "a death certificate... on the passenger seat." With her stethoscope to the expired patient's chest she "hears nothing but my earrings."

Shklanka's best poems sparkle and leap with metaphor and imagery. In the opening poem, a patient "woke bleeding on a battlefield of empties." "First Pregnancy" opens with the rewardingly layered "her secret pockets of fear" and "The father is a pale satellite, / the mother is on a different planet." On the brutally hot day described in the poem "Punta Indio," "Iguanas silver the rooftops" and the rubbing fronds of warm palm trees are "sleepy bedroom voices." Shklanka's use of the classic comparative tools of metaphor and simile presumably led her to her previous success publishing these poems in journals such as DescantPRISM InternationalEvent, etc. "In the Poem" and "Longing" were short-listed for Arc's "Poem of the Year" contests in 2005 and 2006.

The peoms which abandon metaphor do so at some cost to density, intensity and memorability. One-eighth of the book is a long, multi-part poem devoted to the tango. Although they may be striving for a rawly juxtapositional minimalism, several sections of the tango poem risk being bald and prosaic. One verse paragraph of "caminata," consists solely of "he looks ahead / to where they are going," The third and final verse paragraph completes some undescribed movement, but the reader hasn't shared in the journey of the characters: "she sees where they've come from / closes her eyes." 

Beyond Shklanka's strong metaphors and the extraordinary content provided by the medical poems, there are challenges here finding the magical in the mundane. At times, there are robust, non-metaphorical skills with the sensuous and tactile as casually confident poems counterpoint vivid details to give us gleaming collages of hospital wards and bright, smell-rich landscapes: "Metal tray, white plastic sheet, / a silver faucet's tall curve." However, many of the poems insist on a very l-eye which can leave them reading like diary accounts with line-breaks: "My beeper pinches, I run home, dial the hospital. / Switchboard transfers me to emergency." Ideally, one wants to live this experience from the inside, to feel it, not simply to observe it from the outside. This fixation on a poem's speaker often intrudes at the endings. Much of the work of "A Certain Yellow" ably juxtaposes colours and sensations, yet the poem concludes with the overly declarative "A persimmon has large seeds, slippery flesh, / I feel its weight in my hand." Despite the poem's circular use of a mother character peeling a persimmon in the first line, the emphasis on the last line is on the "I," on the doer, not the done. Stay, please, with the texture and heft of the persimmon, not the hefter. 

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