Reviewed by Chelsea Cox
E. Alex Pierce
Vox Humana. Brick Books, 2011.
The opening poem of E. Alex Pierce’s Vox Humana, “In the Sand Hills,” immediately drew me in. Although, as John Glenday states on the back cover, this poetry collection is “a rich diapason rooted in the landscape of Nova Scotia’s Sable River,” the images evoked are not limited to the east coast of Canada, but may be found throughout the country. This transnational perspective is strongly conveyed through stories of loss, childhood, motherhood, women, and birth.
Mothers feature prominently throughout Pierce’s collection, starting with the dedication to her own mother, Eileen Lloyd Pierce, and continuing in the first section of poems following “In the Sand Hills.” This selection of poems, “Ice Mother,” “Palm Mother,” and “Travelling with My Mother,” collectively creates an image of hard-working women, deliberate and stubborn, but challenged by illness, age, and men. There is a sense of community between women and girls in Pierce’s poems, as if men and boys do not or cannot understand what these women know; something is lost when men are present. In “Last Summer in the Old Craig House,” the speaker paints a picture of life without males, full of adventure and magic before a new baby boy enters the family: “two lost princesses travelling with [their mother] in her last bid for freedom / while she still ran wild in the meadows and woods-roads” (19). Fathers condescend in Pierce’s poems: “You should have been a boy. More energy / than you know what to do with” (20). Female energy is ridiculed, its power and influence not as valuable as the energy of men.
Female or feminine power comes from birth and maternity, and once Pierce’s women age they become weak, sick, and frail, their power only recognized by other women, and even that power is limited at best. I don’t believe it is an accident that the two most painful stories are not of old women dying—such stories, however, also appear in Vox Humana—but of younger women losing children. In “Their Boy,” two couples walk together, the parents of a dead son and friends of the grieving couple. In the sections of “Snow White & Red Rose” called “Veil” and “White Camel,” miscarriage separates a mother from what was to be her daughter. The event also estranges a man from the woman who was going to have their child. The extent of her grief shocks him. “I can bear the fullness, the heat, the sweating, when I am alone like this” (73), she says, as if the presence of another, someone besides her dying daughter, would destroy what little life she feels is left in her body, even as that life ends.
Even in the third major section of this collection—in which Pierce explores historical figures, myth, theatre, art, and opera—women struggle against power: their own and that of others. “Desdemona” suggests that Shakespeare’s character of the same name not only did not love Othello—“he was my lord, / and not my love, my lord” (46)—but that his touch was bruising. “Madonna of the Pinks” describes Raphael’s famous painting of a woman fleeing to a convent after refusing a marriage proposal. Ophelia, too, in her diary writes of “Amleth” with mixed excitement and fear, of his attention and lack thereof. Only Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, has undisputed female strength. She never appears under a man’s control: “I saw how Achilles was shocked / not to have her. This was Penthesilea. / She belonged to no one” (60). “Hendrick Goltzius’ Hand” relates the story of a sixteenth-century painter and engraver whose hand was damaged in childhood. Pierce depicts both the painter’s determination in spite of his disfigurement and the pain his mother felt as her son burned himself. Even if focused on masculinity, this poem still appeals to the connection between mother and child.
In Vox Humana, Pierce moves through history and literature, and in so doing shows the ways in which women have been affected by the men in their lives. Her poems describe women of power and timidity, but they remain attentive to the voices of these women, so that we can experience their struggles, joys, and experiences with each other and with men. Pierce’s collection rightly celebrates these voices.
At press time: Chelsea Cox is a recent M.A. graduate from the University of Saskatchewan. Her final project was a posthumanist analysis of Philip K. Dick’s androids from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the Cylons from Ronald D. Moore and David Eick’s reimagined television show Battlestar Galactica. She hopes to continue reading and researching in the areas of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction, examining the roles of artificial life forms in sci-fi in more detail, and engaging with posthumanist criticism and theory. Cox lives and writes in the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan.
Click here to return to the current issue