Carol Shields | Critical Review by Christine Hamelin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Carol Shields.
This section contains 1,013 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Christine Hamelin

Critical Review by Christine Hamelin

SOURCE: "Sadness and Light," in Canadian Forum, Vol. LXXIV, No. 846, January-February, 1996, pp. 46-7.

In the following review of Coming to Canada, Hamelin praises Shields's poetry, stating that in it readers hear the same poignant voice of her novels.

It is difficult to read Carol Shields' collection of poetry, Coming to Canada, without preconceptions; by now, we know her voice well and find ourselves looking for glimmers of Daisy Goodwill and shades of Mary Swann. And in fact the poems in this retrospective—which includes selections from Others (1972), Intersect (1974) and an earlier volume also entitled Coming to Canada (1992), as well as 33 new ones—have the same honest, unpretentious intensity as Shields' best fiction. Shields excels at character and description, and many of the poems are like little novels, tiny scenes held up to the light.

In his introduction, Christopher Levenson expresses surprise that the poems are not "as full of sweetness and light" as he had expected. But since most of them are tinged with an awareness of mortality, of missed opportunities, or a certain anxiety, this comment leaves one wondering if Shields is still a victim of what could be called the L.M. Montgomery Syndrome, where women who write about the domestic realm are often underrated. In fact, the reflective and philosophical bent of a number of the poems dispels the myth that Shields is a "women's writer", fixated on the family, and many of her images reveal a crueler or more bizarre underside of reality than is evident in her novels.

Levenson argues that in Others, Shields' preoccupation with the family leads to "a sense of stifling coziness", and adds that but for her wit and technical skill, the poems would be "debilitatingly trivial". And yet most of the poems deal with complex and often negative aspects of life. "The New Mothers" dispassionately describes a hospital where "egg-bald babies lie" like "insects in cases", crying "tiny metal tunes, / hairpins scratching / sky". Nor does "Anne at the Symphony" evoke coziness. Anne, "stilled in ether", permits "an alien clarinet / to scoop out an injury / we can't even imagine." The theory of life transmitted by "vinegar pure" flutes "bleeds like sand / through her faintly / clapping hands". Rather than celebrating "happiness, harmony and order", as Levenson suggests, these poems suggest a sadness and even emptiness behind the reassuring rituals of everyday life.

True, Shields grounds her work in the domestic, but she connects its specific details to larger concerns and sometimes terrifying realities, as in "A Friend of Ours who Knits".

      The mittens that leap
      from her anxious wool annul
      old injuries and rehearse
      her future tense.
 
      Her husband's career is secured
      in cablestitch, and her children,
      double-ribbed, are
      safe from disease.
 
      knit, purl,
      she goes faster and faster,
      increase, decrease,
      now she prevents
      storms, earthquakes, world wars.

In the "Coming to Canada" section of the volume, the speaker's voice is relaxed, personal and outward-reaching. The title generates certain expectations: that we will learn about Shields' feelings about immigrating to Canada, and perhaps that we will see ourselves reflected. But these poems deal mostly with Shields' youth in the U.S. They recreate early sensations such as blowing through a blade of grass, or learning to speak ("when language blew up a new balloon / almost every day"), as well as some more frightening aspects of childhood. In one poem, a child touches her dead grandmother's mouth, seeing this act as the first of many terrifying tests in the adult world. In another, a child thinking about religion concludes that "It was better not / To think about / The Holy Ghost".

Shields is at her best when she places personal details in a broader historical or political context, as in her subtle merging of the public and private effects of war in "The Four Seasons". Less strong are the poems where she confronts philosophical issues directly, as in "I/Myself," where she attempts to describe the nature of consciousness by comparing the complicated back of a radio to the inside of her head.

The title poem, "Coming to Canada", juxtaposes a 1932 postcard, sent on the occasion of an aunt's Canadian honeymoon, with the poet's perception of Canada:

    It was cool and quiet there
    with a king and queen
    and people drinking tea
    and being polite and clean
    snow coming down
    everywhere

Years later, this clichéd view is displaced when the speaker settles in Canada, which becomes "here and now and home / the place I came to / the place I was from."

Like many other writers of her generation (one thinks of Margaret Atwood's moving poem about her father in Morning in the Burned House), Shields is preoccupied with the themes of the aging and death of parents or relatives. In "Our Old Aunt Who Is Now in a Retirement Home", Auntie, "stewed / in authentic age" and caught "in her closet of brown breath," "lives from tray to tray, / briefly fingering / squares of cake." "The final outrage", the poet discovers, is "not death, / but lingering". There is an unexpected gravity and sadness in many of her later poems, which confront the inevitability of time's passing and the heartbreak of old age through such situations as the selling of the family house, the painful recognition of aging felt at a class reunion or the choked anger of golden-agers on a tour of autumn leaves.

But not all of the new poems are overtly about time. In "Work", which seems haunted by Susanna Moodie on whom Shields wrote her M.A. thesis [Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision], the poet describes a couple stacking wood:

    Afterwards we drank tea
    and noticed how our hands shook
    clumsy as paws
    with the tiny cups,
    as though the shock
    of moving from brutal bark
    to flowered china
    had been too great.

Such elegance and control are more the rule than the exception in this deeply human collection of poems. When Shields strikes the right balance between the personal and the political, the mundane and the philosophical, her writing is powerful indeed. Many poems in Coming to Canada achieve that balance, and in them one recognizes the voice we have grown accustomed to through reading Shields' novels: a quiet, unpretentious voice speaking important truths.

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This section contains 1,013 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Christine Hamelin
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