Reviewed by Andrea Hasenbank
Miriam Waddington (ed. Ruth Panofsky)
The Collected Poems of Miriam Waddington. University of Ottawa Press, 2014.
2 vols. 1112 pp.
Marking a point of personal connection between editor and poet, and expanding outward through the work of writing and scholarship in its many dialogic modes, Ruth Panofsky’s edition of The Collected Poems of Miriam Waddington opens up new field lines for Canadian literary scholarship. In two volumes, gathering Waddington’s previously published works from 1936 through 2003 as well as selected unpublished poems and translations, Panofsky’s collection constitutes an elegant meditation on and comprehensive record of the entanglements of Waddington’s public and private lives.
Panofsky positions Waddington’s work as part of the ongoing conversations defining the field of Canadian literature and Canadian modernism more specifically. The earliest poems work in a clear lyric tradition, animated by a vivid sense of place, as in “The Returner”: the image of “summer of drifted gold” gone cold in “iron winter” pointedly illuminates a pastoral scene (3). The pastoral echoes throughout the collection, as Waddington continually opposes the western prairies to the cities of both eastern Canada and a Europe drawn from memory. As Waddington’s poetic voice develops, however, her lyrical recollection mingles with acts of witnessing. “Night of Voices” (1966) recalls a lover whose “mouth tasted of white lilac / and water plants,” but whose “kisses sang of Polish villages / destroyed and built again” (321). So intercut, the speaker’s personal memories are shadowed by ancestral fears. In a more fragmented style, “Driving Home” (1969) flicks between the gas station lights of a modern highway and the marshes and villages running along a past Volga, piercing the present with images of an unknown home “In the village Hitler burned,” among people “on fire with rage / with joy” (480). Waddington also uses her historical inner eye in her political writing, as in “Canadians” (1968). At the moment of the Canadian centennial, the poet critiques the received symbols of nationalism, finding that below placid images of geese, fish, and the Fathers of Confederation, “We look / like a geography / but just scratch us / and we bleed like / history” (366).
Gradually, Waddington’s lush poetic style ventures into more overt modernist experimentation, which for her began in the mid-1960 and carried through the latter part of her career. “Falling Figure” (1966), in seven parts, uses jagged word parts in staccato repetition, with German and Yiddish fragments breaking through and around allusions to fairy tales and to the poetic traditions of John Donne and Mary Wroth fairy tales, breaking apart the very form of romance (312-316). Waddington’s use of cacophony is on display in “Real Estate: Poem for Voices” (1976), which sees a domestic garden space running up against urban sprawl. Stanzas describing the flowers and dragonflies are punctuated by aggressive all-caps shouts that decry “ALL THAT BULLSHIT” (615). Given the various levels of frankness the poet shows throughout the collection, the exchange could equally depict the speaker railing against herself, as a gardener verbally assaulted by passers-by. Waddington’s modernism tests the brittle surfaces of impersonal interactions, finding where they break through into hollowness, and where they merely conceal deeper eddies beneath.
With a focus on poetic practice as shaped through teaching, learning, and translating, Panofsky situates Waddington’s work within a lineage of Canadian Jewish writers. By explicitly discussing Waddington’s “literary apprenticeship” (xvii) as well as using the critical apparatus to highlight the poet’s personal and professional networks, Panofsky conveys a vibrant and active literary formation and points to other, more obscure Jewish-Canadian writers, such as Ida Maza. Waddington’s selections for translation resonate with her own poetic works, particularly in their concern with the violence of historical memory. Her 1960 translation of “Scenario,” originally by J.I. Segal, takes the point of view of a killed Polish Jew observing the homecoming of a German soldier with “pure bright hate” (933). The abject speaker witnesses the happy domestic scene, marking the absence of horror that attends it. In this view, the enemy is triumphant, while the victimized can only haunt the places of their “quenched ashes and desolate crumbs” (934). It is in this succession of translated voices, which wend into the timbre of her own poetic voice, that Waddington bears witness to the past, while preserving it and offering it to unknowing readers.
Panofsky comprehensively and cleanly presents Waddington’s poems and acts as a scholarly mediator who never intrudes upon the poems; Her collection makes readability and usability a priority. Unpublished material follows Waddington’s complete published works in its own section, as does selected translated material. Textual notes and explanatory notes are each confined to separate sections at the end of Volume 2. This presentation, as well as the supplementary material made available through the University of Ottawa Press website (including Waddington’s work in non-print media, such as radio transcripts, manuscripts, and archival objects), indicate that the collection has been designed for easy classroom use as well as a starting point for more sophisticated research. This collection does the necessary foundational work for this further scholarship by gathering a very rich body of material and opening the boundaries of genre, position, language, and media to open-ended inquiry. Here, Panofsky has accomplished the monumental task of collecting and evaluating the life’s work of a prolific writer and critic without ever reifying the collection as a monument; on the page, Waddington’s text remains varied, expansive, and alive.
Andrea Hasenbank is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, where she is a Killam Memorial Scholar and a past Doctoral Fellow of Editing Modernism in Canada, as well as Project Coordinator for the Proletarian Literature & Arts project. Her research is grounded in the area of print history with a focus on the intersections between print, politics, and propaganda in Western Canada during the 1930s.
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