Souvankham Thammavongsa lays her words out in a variety of shapes and forms, though her signature style includes lyric compactness and austere line placements complemented by ample white space. The spaces are given as much thought and weight as the words themselves. Her style is a refreshing contrast to the dense, baroque imagery of current poetic styles. Other work can feel hyperbolic and verbose after reading Thammavongsa’s lean verse. The poems in Light are neither superficial nor undemanding, creating instead a space of quiet discomfort.
A heap of treasure perfectly describes Susan Downe’s intriguing tale, Juanita Wildrose: My True Life. Downe delves not only into her mother’s life, but into lives of an earlier generation caught up in the fraught years of the American Civil War. The photos, letters and family documents Downe uses were found safely stored in the “ancestor’s drawer” of Juanita Wildrose’s desk. This material, combined with skeins of history and snippets of poetry, run like a rich vein through Downe’s account of her mother’s unusual life.
Downe’s book is episodic, shifting, with aplomb, between life on a primitive, turn-of-the-century farm in Texas County, Missouri, where the family settled in l906, to a glance-back at the heartbreak and grim tutelage of the war between the states. It is a generational story told in the voice of Juanita, the second of six children of Mallie and George Malcolm Emack, who left Witchita, Kansas for the fresh air of a Missouri farm.
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The word nostalgia comes from two Greek roots—nostos, meaning the return home, and algos, meaning pain or longing. The Western Home tells the story of the folk song “Home on the Range” through characters seeking to integrate their experiences of upheaval and alienation into meaning and identity—to transform their longing into belonging, their pain into understanding—by retreat to the safety of an ideal. “Home on the Range” is the protagonist of The Western Home, and the supporting characters are the people who helped shape the song’s destiny by writing, rewriting, singing, recording, claiming and disowning it. Each story in the collection takes place in a different decade following the year of the song’s composition as a poem, in 1872. Beginning with the lonely, alcoholic pioneer, Brewster Higley, who wrote the poem, and concluding with a disaffected teenager who works in a rural Kansas tourist kiosk near the original site of the poem’s composition, this collection explores themes of collective memory, collective forgetting and the loss that is implied in both. Whether they are seeking out ideal landscapes, or pursuing invincible beliefs, or trying to make meaning out of chaos, the characters in these stories are all trying find a way home.
Catherine Cooper’s The Western Home is a tour de force that evokes, re-invents and brings vividly to life the many stories of the song that came to be known as “Home on the Range.” Each story is an utterly engrossing revelation of character and of era, as well as of the American West. Cooper has performed a bit of magic here, choosing a simple song as point of entry into her fictional world and conjuring wonders from it. —Terence Byrnes
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A new volume of poetry, Light, by the award-winning Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa, was published in September 2013 by Pedlar Press, with Catharine Nicholson’s picture ‘The Viable’ as the design for the front cover. Light contains forty-two poems, just as ‘The Viable’ shows forty-two acorns.
Souvankham Thammavongsa’s glorious new collection has won the 2013 CBC Bookie.
*For more information about Catharine Nicholson, acclaimed botany artist, visit:
I’ve been reading with great delight—I think Juanita Wildrose is simply wonderful—but one has to say something more than wonderful. So I thought I’d say, A heap of treasure out of a living past. —Alice Munro
Globe & Mail review:
Juanita Wildrose: My True Life, by Susan Downe, Pedlar Press, 293 pages, $22.00.
Increasing critical attention is being paid to the problem of biography and memoir: not just A Million Little Pieces or how Augusten Burroughs can recall anything so vividly, but the problem of all stories that are supposed to be true: how to keep the fiction from seeping in. What to make then of Juanita Wildrose, a book dubbed by its publisher a “fictional memoir”? The best course in this case is to take it at face value: Stop worrying about the veracity and enjoy the verisimilitude. Juanita (1904-2006) grows up on a hardscrabble farm in Elk Creek, Missouri until she turns rebellious and is sent away to school at the age of 12. It may not sound like much, but the strength here is the voice: evocative, appropriate to Juanita’s age, and rich in detail, it has that gripping effect of eavesdropping on a life. As one person says, “Who’s to say? Maybe the story happened just like you said.”