Reviewed by Jen Bartlett
Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst
Apologetic for Joy. Goose Lane, 2011.
“How can I paint what I do not know?” asks Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst (“I continue to look for God, and I do not know ii,” 74). Apologetic for Joy is a master class in painting the quotidian with words, rediscovering delight in daily life while consistently acknowledging the brevity of human existence, perhaps best epitomised by the poignant “When I Go to Heaven I’m Going to Miss Avocados” (47). Hiemstra-van der Horst directs her words like beams of sunshine through a magnifying glass to illuminate experiences that can all too easily be dismissed as mundane. Her poems depict a world infused with an Augustinian sense of wonder, where even plant fertilizer can be miraculous: “And I can pour / the dead body of a carp on my lavender / so the impulse of a murky fish renders ultraviolet” (“The universe divides and divides,” 75). Hiemstra-van der Horst finds beauty in a vast array of sources, from “the naked arch of a deer stopped forever, / curved on the side of the highway" (“Excerpts from Gerald, God, and the Chickens, 57), to those who “transform ink into sound" (“Eating Quince With Musicians,” 30). She intersperses her texts with her own pencil illustrations to evince a multi-sensory experience of her material, and her approach is equally intensely personal. Every single one of the characters referenced in the poems also appears in the acknowledgements, which allows for convincing cohesion across the eclectic, jubilant mix of geographical settings, encounters, and images that Hiemstra-van der Horst claims as memories.
Nevertheless, these poems are not a blinkered, ingenuous, or naïve celebration of a charmed life. Obliquely or abstractly referenced flashes of political tension and controversy, such as “tar sands in Fort McMurray” (“The long slow abdomens surface in the night ii,” 95), appear sufficiently often to prevent the reader from being swept away completely in the beauty of Hiemstra-van der Horst’s images. Comparing driving in her present location to that of earlier summers, Hiemstra-van der Horst notes that “Boxed in traffic / I don’t contemplate je me souviens out of the blue” (“I’ve tried not to write a poem about roadkill for weeks,” 103). On her current highway, she is concerned with life and death, power and impotence, social responsibility, “terrified by the prospect / that I could kill something / by not noticing it” (103). In her wider poetic vista, Québec’s separatist movement may have been reduced to political pettiness, but its inclusion still leaves a sour tang that grounds the poem and restricts any universalising impulse.
Continuing the (perhaps unintentional) Augustinian theme, Hiemstra-van der Horst concludes her collection with the section entitled Confessions. The poems in both this and the preceding Slum Kidneys and Other Domestic Runaways still contain some finely crafted images, and raise some interesting formal questions with regard to the boundary between poetry and prose, but they fail to achieve the soaring glories of the previous 86 pages. If there is a flaw in Apologetic for Joy, it surfaces in these sections: the relentless insistence on personal experience and Hiemstra-van der Horst’s invitation to the reader to enter into her world lead to a constant first person narrative presence. While this approach was fruitful and effective at the start of Apologetic for Joy, in these latter sections it can seem an intruding and almost solipsistic annoyance, shown to greatest effect in “I am a 31 year old Caucasian in perfect health.” Hiemstra-van der Horst initially explores an entrancing new perspective on sales of internal organs:
What is Zack’s kidney? What makes it
a marketable appendage? Did he and his kidney
have a falling out, does it have dangerous predilections,
Has his kidney
been purifying sliced cheese and chocolate milk
since he was a boy? Is it lazy, predisposed to scratch and wins? (88)
However, rather than being content simply to offer us this viewpoint, and then retreating to let us savour it, Hiemstra-van der Horst’s voice lingers, turning our focus back onto the voice itself: “I ask Greg. / … / Would you buy my kidney?” (88). “Zack Jones / selling his kidney to the right recipient” (88) and the imagined relationship between him and his kidney becomes the interrogation of a lover, specifically Hiemstra-van der Horst’s lover.
To return to her earlier manifesto, though, this self-privileging focus is indeed painting that which Hiemstra-van der Horst knows. The (very) slight weakness in the latter poems should in no way detract from the fact that in Apologetic for Joy Hiemstra-van der Horst has wrought some masterful and uplifting poetry, with elegant and beautiful ekphrases, and no apologies should be made if it is found to be a truly joyous work to read.
At press time: Jen Bartlett is currently studying for a PhD at the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies as part of the AHRC-funded research project “England’s Immigrants 1330-1550.” Mostly this involves thinking about metaphorical camels. She has published on Don DeLillo and ideas of literature as terrorism, but infinitely prefers medieval travel writing, and thinking about Purgatory. Tea and dark chocolate Hobnobs feature heavily in her life.
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