Gillian Sze’s PANICLE
(Toronto, ON: ECW Press, 2017, $18.95, 90 pages)
Review by Adèle Barclay
“Panicle” is a term from plant morphology—it refers to a branched cluster of flowers. With this in mind, Gillian Sze’s fifth full-length poetry collection Panicle announces the poet’s ever-developing relationship with form. With dynamic curiosity, the poet exhibits a studied yet sly engagement with lyric, prose poetry, ekphrasis, sonnets, and long poems.
Sze is deliberate but not constrained when it comes to her poetry—there’s savvy consideration in her voice. She knows formal rules and literary history well, but she also knows the poetic container is human-made and fallible, and that’s what is more interesting. “Calligraphy,” the inaugural poem of the collection, elucidates this self-awareness: “To write heart in our language takes only four strokes, but so much depends on the first mark. […] In calligraphy, if a stroke falters, you must begin the word all over again.” Rather than crumple under this pressure, Sze allows the poem to embody the drive towards perfection while still opening up:
At least here at my desk I can start again and write:
This is how the beginning sounds. This is my heart. Look.
At least there is that.
Initially this proclamation of “at least” seems like a resigned gesture, but through repetition, it becomes clearly generative. The speaker unblinkingly instructs us to look at the initial stroke of a character and at her heart, and the poem tasked with opening a collection flourishes while carrying the weight of its potential undoing.
Panicle is a conversational collection. Sze often constructs the poems out of quotations and ideas from modernist poetry and letters, art history, contemporary art exhibits, filmmakers. The collection is an active museum. Sze’s voice emerges distinct despite the cacophony of references because the poet deftly balances multiple currents of dialogue. Like any good interlocutor, Sze knows when to hold threads of discussion taut and when to let them loose.
For example, “Sound No 2” deploys an epigraph from German film director Werner Schroeter: “Cinema could be as intelligent and could transport as much message and image and idea as it can with sound.” Sze juxtaposes this meditation on the potency of sound in cinema with poetry’s own powerful ability to zoom in. The quotation provides a jumping off point that Sze adapts for her own project. She writes: “These are things I want to show you, like the empty pause that encircles desire. Or how Klimt knew that a woman bends her neck that far for a kiss only if she really wants it. I want to show you how quiet it gets when you’re in the company of someone who no longer loves you.” This poetic conjuring of heartbreaking silence resounds. The poem enacts an encircling desire—the wish to speak to an addressee about the broiling intense meanings embedded in familiar images and sounds:
But more than anything, I want to show you something smaller: how the smell of winter at night has the same crisp scent as the sound of the word biscuit, the touch of velum in your mouth
The desire to communicate is so strong it engenders synesthesia. Intimate meaning transcends distinct sensory categories. Perhaps this is what the speaker wants to show us—the beyondness of sense in poetry.
Panicle is deeply engaged with visual art—classic and contemporary. What’s refreshing about Sze’s ekphrasis is that her awe isn’t weighed down by self-effacement. Her ekphrastic poems are full of inquisition and astonishment—“This is the hand that reaches for God. / This is where you look up”—but they don’t bemoan language’s inadequacy in the face of visual representation. The poet does not surrender power to the visual realm; instead, she creates poetry playfully and defiantly in tandem with the art world. For example, “Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, 01/06/11” begins:
In the nineteenth century, the romantics ran out of words. They began titling their paintings by the same name. On one wall of the museum hangs La mort de Cléopâtre. Beside it: La mort de Cléopâtre—and beside that: La mort de Cléopâtre.
Words didn’t fail the romantics—the romantics failed with words, but the poet arrives to pick up the slack: “Along the wall, Cleopatra dies, again and again, in French and Flemish.” So much of the collection is concerned with the mechanics of looking—art, film, photography. But it’s poetry that allows Sze to invert the traditional gaze. In “Proof,” the speaker articulates a desire past the camera’s own fields of vision: “There is a way I would like you always to see me when you put your camera down.” Here the speaker sees the seeing and seizes the authority between the two onlookers: “I carry a pair of suns in my head. Take a look: I want you to go blind. I want something in me to do irreparable, irreversible in you.” The poet craves the looking as well as the connection that underpins the two observers.
Sze’s explorations of perception in Panicle are also investigations into how observing connects us to stories and each other. The collection wanders through the halls of high art, not as a way to designate itself as erudite, but as a method of interrogating what visions have come before and enabling poetry to find new ways to see.
Adèle Barlcay‘s writing has appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, PRISM, The Pinch, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2016 Lit POP Award for Poetry and the 2016 The Walrus‘ Readers’ Choice Poetry Prize. Her debut poetry collection If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You (Nightwood, 2016) wont the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. She is the Interviews Editor at The Rusty Toque, the Critic-in-Residence for Canadian Women In Literary Arts, and an editor at Rahlia’s Ghost Press.
This review was published in issue 15:1 Memory & Loss. To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum’s website.
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