I’ve always preferred lyric poetry, and these poems are anything but. The stanzas are straightforward, the breaks seemingly arbitrary, the momentum dependent on strings of substantives cascading down a rough bed. There is hardly any imagery. The lines are abbreviated, the matter presented in chunks without articles, so condensed that reading them is like cutting your way through a hedge. It reminds me of Thomas Hardy—if he had an ear it was different to anyone else’s.
But despite my bias toward the lyric, I found Fretwell addictive. There is a reliable continuity—reliable because her voice is genuine. The audible impact of the poems stays with me—I hear again the broken lines, the headlong plunges to stops that jolt like a series of admonitions.
I am immensely impressed.
This is surely one of the most authentic voices in contemporary Canadian poetry. There is no embellishment, no false humility, no search for a nicer way to say something—or a less nice way. Fretwell is not provocative for the sake of provocation, or funny for the sake of a cheap laugh. I am absolutely convinced.
Some poems do read like tracts, with predictable political and moral views about the poor, Aboriginal people, and the violation of women. Others, recounting experiences from childhood and youth or describing family, can house a whole traumatic sequence—even a whole life, enough material to have plumped out a novella—crushed into one page. Again reminding me of Hardy. Things happen. They come at you staccato, like thrown fireworks.
This is the record of a particular life, bewildered but upheld and carried forward by honesty, humour, and innate optimism. Fragments of Fretwell forced into unique, delightful, ornery poems.
The poet calls herself Mary Wollstonecroft’s ‘cohort and acolyte,’ drawing parallels between their two lives (Fretwell did something similar in Angelic Scintillations, making links between herself and poet-ancestor Henry Vaughan). Class Acts compares post-Revolution Paris to the present, weighing the subtle (and the blatant) subjugation of women then against now. She mourns with Mary the failure then to include women in the new freedom (and at the same time projects an implicit disappointment in how little has changed): “your bloodied hemline, observer-Mary.” Here is a rare, musical line: “You keened across the Channel, Mary,” followed by rough text (it won’t scan): “asked: How did such novel ideals / bleed out, severed at the neck?” Class Acts brings to life Fretwell’s girlhood in unerring retro: “knelt to scrub the graying linoleum, / served Sunday stew and peach pie / in your salmon-sided home… in the Frigid / aire Fifties.”
The reader is warned: to refresh my background, I read up conscientiously on Mary Wollstonecraft, only to find the information I wanted in a dense 6-page Afterword. It is a misplaced Preface. Read it first. Another preference: I would have liked to see included in the book more than four of Fretwell’s paintings, which have the same clarity, intelligence, and good serious fun as her poems.
Artist and writer Heather Spears lives in Denmark. Her work has won numerous prizes, including the Pat Lowther Memorial Award three times, and the Governor General’s Award for Poetry.
ARC: A CLASS TO ITSELF.