The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

The Secret Signature of Things by Eve Joseph

Reviewed by Claudine Gélinas-Faucher

Eve Joseph
The Secret Signature of Things
. Brick books 2010                            90pp.                                            $19.00                                                            

In her second book of poetry, The Secret Signature of Things, Eve Joseph gradually demonstrates that the desire to speak with the dead inspires her most powerful and moving work. Her book presents four somewhat uneven sections, but one can nevertheless trace a clear formal and thematic evolution in her poems, from a naive wonder at daily pleasures to a darker scepticism about the nature of language and dialogue.

The first section, “Menagerie,” features a different animal as the speaker of each poem. These short, simple poems use pared-down language to express an almost animistic reverence for the living world. But they too often fall prey to facile imagery and language. Her frog speaks in clichés, “I am a soloist / in the night choir” (20), while her cormorant designates itself as “a bridegroom in a rumpled / black suit” (23). The images seem stale; the language fails to affect the reader.

In the second section of the collection, “Amongst Strangers,” Joseph’s poetry becomes less concerned with quotidian events as the source of poetic inspiration and begins exhibiting doubts as to whether language can successfully communicate experience. This shift helps Joseph settle on a path that she masters much more convincingly and touchingly, one that leads her away from “the most inadvertent holiness” (29) and towards a more profound inquiry on the hazards of “Translation” and the morbidity of “The Language of Birds.” The poem “Passage,” recounting her world travels aboard a ship, signals this developing wariness towards language. As the ship sails on, she remembers waiting “for something to arrive [...] A sign to interpret, any sign at all” (31). In retrospect, however, she cautions her reader against such an eagerness to interpret: “The ship is not a metaphor” (31). This guardedness towards words leads Joseph to explore the people and moments that fail to be rendered onto the page. Her reflections on “the poems that don’t get written” (38) in “White Camellias” won her the 2010 P.K. Page Founders’ Award for Poetry. From this poem onwards, as she enters in dialogue with other poetic voices, Joseph grapples with a central question: “How will the dead speak?” (58).

This meditation is momentarily sidetracked by the third section of the book, “A Few Provisions,” in which Joseph experiments with a prose that is solid but ultimately jarring in tone and subject matter. It culminates, however, in what is decidedly the most effective poem of the collection. In “Tracking,” a twelve-page poem, the speaker engages with Canadian filmmaker Christine Welsh about her film Finding Dawn, a documentary on the disappearance and murder of aboriginal women in western Canada. The poem is socially engaged, but Joseph succeeds in avoiding the kind of voice appropriation to which most political poetry succumbs. Her use of the second person gestures towards an empathic commentary on Welsh’s approach, but the versatile “you” is also a direct address to the innumerable lost native women, an insurrection against these literal and figurative disappearances. The opening lines of the poem are a testimony to the simple, repeated horror of their reality:  “What is it about numbers? / One woman goes missing / then another / and another” (80). The poem weaves some of the more important lines from Welsh’s documentary into its own meditation on loss and absence, drawing attention to contemporary issues concerning First Nations People. For if Welsh’s film ends on the hopeful intention to “call the girls back home,” Joseph’s outlook remains much bleaker: “if you called the names / if you called each one, / where would you call her / home to?” (86). Thus, Joseph’s poetry is as much about stressing the importance of speaking about (rather than "for") these women as it is about finding a way to speak with and “comfort the dead” (85).

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  About the Author

At press time: Claudine Gélinas-Faucher is a PhD student at McGill University. She is also an associate editor for The Bull Calf: Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism. Her current research focuses on the emergence of Montreal-based literary and artistic societies at the turn of the twentieth century. 

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