Article Category Archives: Book Review

Vox Humana

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Vox Humana by E. Alex Pierce

Vox Humana by E. Alex Pierce

“Last Summer in the Old Craig House” from Vox Humana

Musk melon, moth skirt, with those skin-like petals that come in pink and white.
Mauve pink, for musk, our mother, that summer our brother was born.

Gold spun hair on the gun-metal green lilacs, put there to help the fairies build
their houses. And fairy-rings she found in the mossy woods. She was certain of it.

We were two lost princesses travelling with her in her last bid for freedom
while she still ran wild in the meadows and woods-roads,

traipsing us down through the salt marsh to sit on Craig’s Beach
and have royal cups of tea, red Kool-Aid that ran in streams

down our white shirts. It was our last summer in that house,
the end of our reign – he came in August, late August.

They put a Union Jack out on the clothesline up the road.
To give birth – to a son.

Lying in that brass iron bed –
now, she was Queen.

E. Alex Pierce: Much of what I write springs from my life at Sable River, Nova Scotia: I can see the salt marsh and the mouth of the tidal river from my upstairs windows. The village is much the same as it was when my grandparents (all four of them) lived here. I grew up in the nearby town of Liverpool, and spent weekends and summers at Sable with my family. “Last Summer in the Old Craig House” comes from an early memory of one of the houses we stayed in. I left Liverpool at sixteen to study music at Mount Allison and later got involved in the theatre and made that my profession. Decades later I had a chance to buy my grandmother’s house. I live there much of the time now and recognize that this landscape formed a great part of my inner life. I have photos of me at seven weeks in my mother’s arms outside the house where I live now.

“Eternal Lines” from Vox Humana

My mother spouted lines as if they were
her own: “I could compare thee,” she might say,
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
The poem’s truth came later, here, or there,
she’d grafted life to art – the darling buds
of May were mine, his gold complexion dimm’d,
my father’s secret way. The eye of heaven
shined on us – and her, until the stroke
that found her vein and played its course
took all her words away. My love for her
was locked inside the poem then–but now
I read to her, and she responds to sound
without the sense, receives the lines she gave:
conceit of childhood – all at once unmade.

E. Alex PierceVox Humana felt like the right title for this book. As well as “the human voice,” its more direct meaning, vox humana also refers to an organ stop that I knew from the pump organ in our parlour. It’s a reedy sounding stop that is said to resemble the singing voice. For me, poetry is voice in that what I write is always something that can be spoken rather than something that is read and understood only in the mind. The words take up physical space and have substance and sound. You could say that the poems in Vox Humana are close to theatre because there is always the sense of a human voice breaking through the poetic form.

Marianne Claire Rivers, 1851

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Claire Never-Ending by Catherine Brunelle

The Adventures of Claire Never-Ending by Catherine Brunelle

From the Editor

When Catherine Brunelle sent the manuscript for The Adventures of Claire Never-Ending, I agreed to publish an excerpt on Understorey based solely on the strength of Catherine’s writing and her determination to bring her book into the world. Claire Never-Ending was self-published with funds raised on Kickstarter. In other words, the book was carefully written, painstakingly edited, beautifully designed, and doggedly marketed—largely by Catherine herself. This takes both creativity and courage.

But I didn’t know the half of it.

After I responded to Catherine, she told me the rest of her story: “Claire Never-Ending was never meant to be self-published, at least not in the beginning. After three years of writing and editing, my query efforts came to a sudden halt when I was given a stage four cancer diagnosis. Life suddenly had a ticking clock in the background. I decided this novel, a story of nine generations of women who all share the middle name Claire, would go directly to the readers through a crowdfunding campaign. The project was totally under my control, and it was thrilling to see the book take physical shape. Self-publishing isn’t easy, and crowdfunding demands hustle, but the pay-off in satisfaction is huge. My Claires are now out in the world.”

One of Catherine’s Claires lives in Cape Breton in the mid-1800s. Marianne Claire Rivers is heavily pregnant and soon to leave for Thunder Bay with her husband, Marshall. Marianne’s mother-in-law, Bonnie, protests the departure of her son, daughter-in-law, and future grandchild, by refusing to eat. Marianne intervenes as follows.

From “Marianne Claire Rivers, 1851.”

Marianne turned round to the door. “Bonnie, I’m going to pick up this here piece of decorative drift wood in your garden and smash it through your window. You want me to do that? I swear to Mary and Joseph, I’ll do it if you don’t open this door. And then imagine what Fiona Campbell will be saying across town. Hmm?”

Marianne waited. The last thing she wanted was to bend over and pick up that log. She might not be able to get back up.

“You’re a stubborn goat, Marianne La Fleur,” called Marshall’s mother.

Bonnie always used maiden names whenever she was fed up with daughter-in-laws.

“As are you Bonnie Sinclair.” Marianne did the same for mother-in-laws.

The door clicked and was opened a crack. Mrs. Rivers walked back toward the dim kitchen as Marianne pushed through the entrance and stepped into Marshall’s childhood home. It wasn’t a very large place, just a few good-sized rooms grouped together and supported with wooden beams from inland. The outside was salt encrusted with a lifetime along the ocean, and the inside was cluttered with family memories and traces of their trade: netting in the corners waiting to be repaired, driftwood piled by the hearth for burning, shells along every flat surface you could imagine.

Marianne put down her basket and eventually managed to step out of her boots, trading them for some black knitted slippers she pulled from her pocket. Taking the basket, she slowly hobbled her way along the corridor to the kitchen. Bonnie was on the cot in the kitchen. The room was stuffy and hot, the curtains were drawn. Marshall’s mother looked pale as cotton and more deflated than a jelly fish on the beach.

“By the way you were fighting me, I almost thought you’d eaten a horse and more this past week. But Marshall tells me you haven’t
touched a thing.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Fine,” replied Marianne. “But I’m starving and our stove is plugged. You mind if I make myself some dinner here?”

“Don’t play your games, girl. I know your stove ain’t plugged.”

“No games here, Bonnie. A family of sparrows just laid eggs and I don’t want to move the nest till the young ones have hatched and flown away.”

“Couldn’t have moved it before the babies arrived?”

“And where would they go otherwise? The seagulls would get them.”

“Marianne, all that sweetness will rot your teeth.”

Marianne put her basket on the kitchen table and walked over to the large windows, pulling back the drapes and letting in the light. Bonnie turned on her cot by the stove and faced the wall. The woman began mumbling to herself.

“What’s that?” asked Marianne. Going to the cupboard, she pulled out a large pot and left it on the counter.

“I said, ‘just like a child to fly away,’ even birds are ungrateful to their mothers.”

“Birds have no concept of gratitude; they just do what’s natural.”

Marianne opened a drawer and pulled out a small knife. Then, sitting down before the basket at the table and pulling over the large cutting board, she grabbed a handful of carrots.

“You rinse those carrots?” asked Bonnie, peeking over her shoulder.

“Of course I did,” replied Marianne. Marshall’s mother’s white hair was hanging loose across the cot. That was a bad sign. Normally the woman kept it high and tight in a bun.  Marianne peeled her carrot, then another, and then another. Moving aside the peels, she began to slice the carrots with a small paring knife. Soon the board was a mountain of carrot slices. Pushing back her chair, she moaned at the weight of the baby and stood up, getting the big pot and carrying it over to the stove. She lowered herself slowly down to the cupboard beside the stove, taking up the oil jar and pouring several ‘glugs’ into the pot. Putting away the oil, Marianne turned to the cutting board and brought it to the oven.

“In we go,” she whispered as the carrots splashed into the heating oil.

“I won’t eat a thing,” barked Mrs. Bonnie Rivers.

“The carrots are in the pot,” replied Marianne. Picking a wooden spoon from the drawer, she pushed them around to cover the base. Then, taking a small log from the wood pile near the door, she opened the oven and added it to the burning embers.

“Don’t you know better?” asked Bonnie, still facing the wall and not moving. “You cook the onions first. Gets rid of their sting and makes everything sweeter.”

“I sure do know better,” replied Marianne. “Carrots first brings out the yellow, and everyone likes a soup with strong colour.”

Marshall’s mother snorted. “Young girls think theys always knows best.”

“All I know is that carrots go first.”

“Onions first!” Mrs. Rivers turned away from the wall to stare down Marianne. “I’ve been cooking soup all my life, girl, and I knows about order.”

“This recipe has been handed down generations,” replied Marianne. She pushed at the carrots and looked out the window. “That essentially makes it historic.”

Another snort from Bonnie. “Historic, my backside.”

“That too, of course.”

Preview: Double Pregnant

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double pregnantNatalie Meisner is a writer from Lockeport, Nova Scotia. She currently lives in Calgary and teaches creative writing, drama, and literature at Mount Royal University. In her forthcoming book, Double Pregnant: Two Lesbians Make a Family, Natalie describes the decision she made with her partner, Viviën, to become pregnant–at the same time. Double Pregnant will be released on Mother’s Day, 2014, by Roseway/Fernwood Publishing. Here, we offer a preview of the chapter “Not Hollywood.”

Not Hollywood

We arrive in Nova Scotia with no further complications and make an appointment at the hospital on the South Shore where we will give birth. They need to do a series of tests in order to begin monitoring both us and the babies. Because this is a whole new world for us, we decide to take the optional tour that is run for couples expecting their first child. The head nurse shows us around the facility. We tour an observation room, a birthing room and a recovery room while she talks us through some possible scenarios of how our birth experience could run.

We are taking this tour with four other couples, and as we enter the birthing room, the nurse indicates some stools and chairs where we are to sit while she answers any questions we might have. Large padded chairs are grouped in pairs with utilitarian wooden stools. The nurse, indicating our swollen bellies, says she’s pretty sure the pregnant women need the comfortable chairs. The fathers-to-be head for the stools. The problem comes when we head for our set of chairs. Viviën is definitely showing and obviously pregnant but is still trying to be tough. She says she’s fine with a stool. She’s only six months pregnant, after all. She waves me toward the comfy chair. One of the fathers-to-be jumps up and darts into the corridor. He comes back with a padded chair and puts it in the place of Viviën’s stool. It is a little gesture, yet one that goes a great distance toward making us feel at home.

I give him a smile as Viviën settles in, and the nurse begins talking us through what to expect when we come in to have our babies. She explains that we should come to the hospital either when our water breaks or our contractions are five minutes apart. Then we will be put on the monitor for observation. Every woman’s labour is different, she stresses, and the hospital tries hard to accommodate different kinds of births. There are cots available that can be wheeled into the room so that our partner can stay over during the birth process. When we are determined to be in active labour, we will be given a birthing room, but we are free to walk the halls, take a bath, use the birthing ball or the mats and do whatever our bodies tell us. This hospital appears to be remarkably forward thinking compared to some that I read about.

The nurse handles a few more practical questions before she gets to the juicy part: pain relief. I can feel all the pregnant women around the circle shift forward in their chairs. No matter what our views on this subject might be, no matter what kind of birth we hope to have, we all want to hear what she has to say next. The nurse says there are methods of pain relief that work independently and also in conjunction with one another to assist women during the process. Of course breathing, relaxation, movement and bathing are all helpful. If those methods aren’t enough, you can request an intramuscular injection of a painkiller such as diamorphine or pethidine, but this must be given early in the labour. If it is too close to delivery, it might slow down the baby’s breathing. During the first stages of labour they use a numerical scale to notate the dilation of the uterus. In preparation for birth a woman must go from zero to ten, ten being fully dilated. This process, says the nurse, can be quite painful for some women, while others might only feel a kind of pressure. Once you are in labour, you can request a mask that is connected to a tank of nitrous oxide and oxygen. When you breathe in this gas, it can reduce pain but can also make you feel light-headed and sometimes nauseous. She hauls out the tank and mask to show us what it looks like.

I glance sideways at Viviën to gage her thoughts at this point and notice that she looks woozy. She has low blood pressure, and sometimes if she is ill, or distressed, or even if she sees blood or a needle, she faints. I recognize the twirling dark look in her pupils and lean over to ask her if she is okay.

“Of course the heaviest form of pain relief is the epidural. This is a needle in the back …” Suddenly the nurse jumps forward in alarm. Just as I am whispering in Viviën’s ear, she faints and is sliding down in her chair. Another pregnant woman and I grab her elbows and help her slide safely to the floor. She has told me this is a terrifying experience for her—she hates the feeling of losing control of her body. So, after helping her to the floor, I talk to her, stroking her back and then her cheek for a few moments until she starts to come around again. My only concern is that Viviën gets through the spell as calmly as possible. But the fathers-to-be, the other pregnant women and even the nurse are all pale with shock. One of the guys offers up his coat as a pillow for her head.

“Well I guess that concludes our tour,” the nurse says, shaking her head. “That’s the first time I’ve ever lost one this early in the game.”

It gives me a stab of panic to see Viviën’s strong body go down this way. Especially when I feel so vulnerable myself. There have only been a couple times when I’ve questioned the wisdom of what we’ve done, never the pregnancies themselves, but the timing. Maybe we shouldn’t have tried to get pregnant at the same time. Maybe I should have just supported her through this. Am I an idiot? What if I can’t get her to the hospital? Doesn’t the husband have to drive at Mach 2 through a blinding snowstorm to get his beloved wife to the hospital? Carry her into the emergency room in his arms in the nick of time…. Wait, that’s Hollywood.

The unfortunate thing about living in an age so saturated with cinematic images is that they can frequently pull a bait-and-switch on you for the circumstances of your real life. We aren’t the Hollywood version of a family. I couldn’t carry my woman over the threshold like the hero of the story even if we weren’t both pregnant! But just like anyone in love, I would do anything, I mean anything, in the world for her. Whatever we have to do for each other, we’ve always found the strength for, and this won’t be any different.

New Books: Milk Fever

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milk fever

Milk Fever
by Lissa M. Cowan
Demeter Press, 2013

The “wet nurse” now seems an antiquated term and obsolete profession, but only a hundred years ago wet-nursing was common throughout the world and remains so in many cultures today.

Canadian author Lissa M. Cowan was fascinated by the practice of wet-nursing, particularly the long-held notion that personality, emotions, and morals could be transferred to babies through breast milk. In Milk Fever, her debut novel, Cowan explores this idea in her character Armande Vivant, a wet nurse renown for the magical quality of her milk.

The story takes place on the eve of the French Revolution, 1789. Armande’s services are in great demand as France’s rich grow richer and poor poorer. Armande, unlike most wet nurses of her time, is well-educated and her reputation for reviving sickly infants, suckling them into robust, precocious toddlers, has garnered both awe and suspicion. Through this unusual character, Cowan examines key themes of the French Revolution: shifting power structures, women’s rights, and the role of science versus folklore.

Part historical novel, part mystery, Milk Fever is also an exploration of motherhood and the roles of foster mothers and nursing mothers. The story is narrated by Celeste, a 16-year-old orphaned servant-girl who helps Armande care for her charges and protects her from the ill will of neighbours. In return, Armande teaches Celeste to read and write, and becomes the mother Celeste never knew. When Armande goes missing, Celeste follows a trail of secrets to Paris and into the heart of the Revolution.

While set in the 18th century, Milk Fever raises questions relevant today. Debate about wet-nursing, now called cross-nursing, is on the rise. Organizations such as La Leche League support breastfeeding and screened milk banks, but generally discourage informal cross-nursing. Such arrangements are often short-term and reciprocal (mothers feed one another’s babies) but according to La Leche, donating unscreened milk risks transmission of illness, including HIV, drugs, and environmental contaminants—not emotions or personality, but perhaps our 21st century “milk fever.”

Other new titles by Canadian authors at Demeter Press include Fresh Hell, Motherhood in Pieces and Chasing Rainbows, Exploring Gender Fluid Parenting Practices. See Demeter’s 2013 catalogue for more details.