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(How Poems Work, April 2006)
Susan Stenson’s “When You Say Infidelity” won first place in the League of Canadian Poets’ National Poetry Contest (1999) and is featured in Stenson’s first collection of poetry, [_Could Love A Man_]. The poem is fresh in its unusual treatment of content as well as the lush use of language and imagery. Stenson has given both a literal and figurative garden here; we could become lost in the foxglove and forget-me-nots of a night garden.
Stenson uses the title of the piece as the first line of the poem, creating an immediacy and cohesiveness to the verse as a whole. Her comparison between infidelity and gardening in the first stanza turns infidelity into something innately organic, leading into the specific naming of everyday garden-variety plants, “foxglove, forget-me-not” with “stems and furry leaves.” This specificity allows us to regard the concept of infidelity as something we might touch, something tangible and concrete and undeniably universal. At the end of this stanza, she suggests people “may even whisper its Latin name,” invoking an earthly timelessness….

Susan Stenson’s “When You Say Infidelity” won first place in the League of Canadian Poets’ National Poetry Contest (1999) and is featured in Stenson’s first collection of poetry, Could Love A Man. The poem is fresh in its unusual treatment of content as well as the lush use of language and imagery. Stenson has given both a literal and figurative garden here; we could become lost in the foxglove and forget-me-nots of a night garden.
Stenson uses the title of the piece as the first line of the poem, creating an immediacy and cohesiveness to the verse as a whole. Her comparison between infidelity and gardening in the first stanza turns infidelity into something innately organic, leading into the specific naming of everyday garden-variety plants, “foxglove, forget-me-not” with “stems and furry leaves.” This specificity allows us to regard the concept of infidelity as something we might touch, something tangible and concrete and undeniably universal. At the end of this stanza, she suggests people “may even whisper its Latin name,” invoking an earthly timelessness….


Susan Stenson’s “When You Say Infidelity” won first place in the League of Canadian Poets’ National Poetry Contest (1999) and is featured in Stenson’s first collection of poetry, Could Love A Man. The poem is fresh in its unusual treatment of content as well as the lush use of language and imagery. Stenson has given both a literal and figurative garden here; we could become lost in the foxglove and forget-me-nots of a night garden.
Stenson uses the title of the piece as the first line of the poem, creating an immediacy and cohesiveness to the verse as a whole. Her comparison between infidelity and gardening in the first stanza turns infidelity into something innately organic, leading into the specific naming of everyday garden-variety plants, “foxglove, forget-me-not” with “stems and furry leaves.” This specificity allows us to regard the concept of infidelity as something we might touch, something tangible and concrete and undeniably universal. At the end of this stanza, she suggests people “may even whisper its Latin name,” invoking an earthly timelessness.
In the second stanza, we are guided from ancient times delineated by Latin into the modern day; here is a “Best Western” and “the cozy light of a neighbour’s kitchen” where infidelity is possible and, perhaps, even expected via the common betrayal of “a friend, I’ll call Margery.” A strange balance is then created between the ancient and the familiar, reinforcing the enduring thematic construct.
Stenson juxtaposes a betrayal of intimacy with the mundane earthliness of the garden, resulting in the surprising and satisfying image of the conclusion, where the fantastic bumps up against the ordinary: “Margery planting roots / in that hard place between / the heart and a bad day / or above the trellis.” The diction appears casual and conversational, reinforcing the confessional nature of the poem. Proper names such as “Margery” and “foxglove” allow us access into the depths of the verse; certainly, we are expected to witness our own gardens, our own friends, our own guest beds as the prospective “scene of the crime,” elevating the reader from an outside witness to an active participant in the outcome of the poem.
The ending of the poem, detailing the space “where infidelity now hangs” offers a final example of realism within the verse; there is no tidy ending, no summing up of emotional investments and events. Instead, we are left with the arguably romantic image of a trellis in a night garden, consumed with the ambiguous and symbolic nature of the “light.” .

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