Review of What I Carry with Me from The Ontario Poetry Society

Review by Elana Wolff. Thank you so much, Elana, for a lovely review of my book!

What I Carry With Me                                                                    Review by Elana Wolff

by Carol A. Stephen

Friesen Press, 2022, 82 pages                                                        ISBN: 978-1-03-915025-6

   Carol A. Stephen’s What I Carry With Me, is a spacious collection of sixty-seven poems presented in seven sections

that speak to the poet’s diverse concerns. Among them: Disturbances in the Field, Voices in the Forest, Dark Shadows,

music, travel, language itself, art, homage, and metaphysics.

   The title poem, also the title of the final section, is an homage to American poet Gerald Stern (1925-2022)—whose poems are as ecumenical and international in scope as Stephen’s, and as deeply personal. Both poets stake a claim for their own stories, memories, and legacy. Both address life’s beauties as well as failures, quotidian things as well as oddities and curiosities, in unsentimental, often comical language. And so, in Stephen’s title poem, one of the finest in the collection, and one indeed to learn from, we have:

“Here in this handbag, I carry a portable particle collider. [Aha!]

Here, in this handbag, I carry a Toronto neighbourhood. [It’s a magical bag!]

I carry the stigma of left-handedness [Stigmas, all kinds, die hard.]

I carry four lost poems of unknown poets. [Most poets are unknown, thank goodness for finders.] The index from the anthology

that swallowed them whole. [Thank goodness for keepers.] 

In a side pocket, / three recordings of Leonard Cohen. [Allusion to the poet-priest.]

In a back pocket, / the pods of last year’s caterpillars. [Nod to the animal kingdom.]

I carry the wings of two dead flies. [Nod to delicate relics.]

In the folds of the lining, I carry / dust balls from the toes of Bastet. [An ancient feline goddess, both violent and nurturing.]

Four dimes, a nickel and one extinct penny.” [46 cents, which reduces to 1: visually also ‘I’.]

   There’s much subtly and wonder in this fourteen-line poem—a sly sonnet, if you will. It’s deceptively simple, alluring, as are many of Stephen’s pieces. Throughout the collection, she plays with line length and form, rhythm and diction; explores human behaviour and interaction in dramatic terms, then turns contemplative, speculative. A subject can be as ‘ordinary’ as air, or as extraordinary as snow in Togo and “odd-toed ungulates.” It all depends on how one meets what one sees. With Stephen, the reader is cued to the quotidian:

  1. “Barn Cat, Lap Cat,”
  2. “Mother’s Milk,”
  3. “Town Gossip,”
  4. “Traffic on Highway 7”;

and to what emerges from it:

  1. “Her mouth opens in a perfect “O” as she chatters / to announce her well-timed pounce.”
  2. “Pigs can smile. / And she does.”
  3. “Town Council, / they all hate me because I know / what they’re up to.”
  4. “You see blood smears from tires—drivers / no longer swerve.”

Stephen moves easily between the personal, the political, and the metaphysical; between commonplace and arcane diction. She can be plainspoken and unembellished, and just as readily send you to Google and Bing: She uses the uncommon word “roric,” meaning “pertaining to dew,” in the sensuous eating-piece, “Savouring Minneolas.” In “Hungarian Holiday,” she brings “azimuth circles”—an astronomical term that refers to the direction of a celestial object from the perspective of the observer. The word “bearing” can be used interchangeably with “azimuth,” but “bearing” doesn’t have the same exotic, syllabic ring. Stephen also freely incorporates other languages into her pieces. “Line Excavations, Archeologies,” “Ten-Hut, Alligators, Ten-Hut,” and “To Move as One Oiseau,” feature French; “How Much for a Photo” and “A Café in Venice” feature Italian; and in the poem, “Melach,” “the Hebrew word for salt,” she riffs personally on “the sin of gazing backward.”

   In her closing poem, “What Is Still Beautiful,” Stephen presents the reader with an elegant and unabashed ‘instructional’ on ageing: “Look past surface layers, below the blue-veined skin / of age, see what is still beautiful, still nourished / by richness of memory in the bones, / like the spangled wings of a great fritillary / patterned in intricate traceries, delicate layers of chitin and scale, a muted diffraction of light. / Make no pale comparisons to youth. / Woman and caterpillar have shed their shallow surfaces, stepped free of their first skin, /  in metamorphoses to steal away all breath.”

   The assonance in the first stanza —“skin / still / still / nourished / richness”—resonates with a gentle knell in the second stanza—on “wings / fritillary / intricate / chitin.” Chitin is the building material that strengthens the exoskeleton of crustaceans and insects; fritillary (fritillaria) is any genus of perennial plants of the lily family with nodding, bell-shaped flowers; also a tribe of butterflies, usually having brownish wings with silver spots on the undersides. From the third stanza, semantically-speaking, it seems that Stephen is referring to the butterfly-meaning of fritillary. Yet the bell-shaped flower-meaning of the word resonates sonically as well. The third stanza stands as a call, particularly to women—to “shed the shallowness of comparing youth to age, to “step free of their first skin,” and “in metamorphoses [of ageing] steal away all breath.” This exultant final line shines with all the revelatory self-confidence of another American poet Stephen pays tribute to: C.D. Wright (1949-2016), whose title of her 2002 collection, Steal Away, is embedded before “all breath.” With delicateness, Stephen’s closing poem, and others in What I Carry With Me, touch on the esoteric without ever tipping into abstruseness. Carol Stephen gives her reader a panoply of fruitful, intelligent, accessibly nuanced offerings. To order your signed copy, send $25 ($20 + $5 p&h) payable to Carol A. Stephen, 85 Crampton Dr., Carleton Place, Ontario K7C 4P8.