Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Two Poets, Two Voices: Gianna Patriarca and Alden Hadwen

It is not known if Gianna Patriarca and Alden Hadwen know each other. But these two women have more in common than having coincidentally published books in 2016. Both are poets with ties to Toronto, and both are mothers who are roughly the same age somewhere north of 50. But it is their work that draws them together here for comparison. Each projects a nuanced feminine sensibility regarding poetic writing that serves as a form of self-revelation. Words chisel deep into memory and emotion, exposing hidden meaning. Both write honestly and straightforwardly about personal experience, yielding highly individualized portraits of everyday womanhood which yet have something of the universal about them. Their language is raw and sensual and the subject is quotidian life buying postcards, sipping coffee, watching the flowers grow. The ordinary made extraordinary through an alchemy of potent words. Love, loss, desire, regret, the quest for identity and a sense of belonging are concerns they share in common, regardless of their divergent backgrounds and decisively different points of view. Where Hadwen describes trilliums "piercing the moist forest floor," Patriarca writes of extinguished candles and plastic flowers garlanding the Virgin in churches visited by widows at dawn. One celebrates the potent energies of nature while the other rages against the emotional chill of the city. There's a reason for that.

Patriarca is an immigrant, of Italian descent, who came with her family in 1960 to Toronto's Little Italy district, where she still lives. She worked as an elementary schoolteacher -- the subject of poems, many of them hilarious, in her 2007 book, My Etruscan Face -- until taking early retirement in 2003. The wife of celebrated Toronto chef Andrew Milne-Allan, co-founder of Trattoria Giancarlo and Zucca, among other critically acclaimed local restaurants, Patriarca has written five books of poetry altogether, starting with 1994's award-winning Italian Women and Other Tragedies, a superb collection whose naturalistic style belies the high drama of the lives singing arias on the page. Last year, she published All My Fallen Angelas, her first collection of short stories, expanding in prose form many of the themes and characters first encountered in her poetry.

Exploring the ravages of life and taking in the complexities and handicaps experienced by female characters in particular, All My Fallen Angelas juxtaposes the masculine and the feminine to expose social and cultural forces shaping individual lives at a given time and place.The writing might be less consistently sharp than in her poetry, but Patriarca's Felliniesque knack for combining the poignant with the absurd shines through, making a story like the titular "All My Fallen Angelas" a first-person narrative of a murder victim wrapped in plastic and hidden behind drywall in a Caledon Hills reno a memorably artistic experience. Another strong story from the collection is the evocative "My Father, My Mother, My Sins," a chilling examination of the bittersweet Italian immigrant experience and its effect on the daughter of a disillusioned family. It's a theme common to much of her writing.

Patriarca views immigration less as a new beginning and more as a brutal uprooting from ancestral lands, an identity disconnect. Italians who immigrated to Toronto en masse in the 1950s and 1960s found jobs as factory workers and brick layers, ditch diggers and fruit cart pushers. They were paid decent wages. They enabled the Italian diaspora greatly. Yet Patriarca focuses more on the underbelly of alienation and loss, likely because her memories are rooted in a time, more than 50 years ago, when her people were "the wops" in a WASP enclave.

"The Neighbourhood is Changing," a poem from her 2005 collection, What My Arms Can Carry, describes immigration as a journey into disenchantment:
the old men
have nowhere to go
banished, corroded barges
in some abandoned port
they sit
cooled by the winds of
passing streetcars
at the corner of Grace Street
and College
Despite more than five decades of living in Canada, Patriarca still sees her adopted home as a foreign country, a place where she rarely feels at ease. Her saving grace is being able to mitigate the misery with dark humour. In "Maggie/Peggie," Patriarca mischievously imagines herself transformed into homegrown poet Margaret Atwood, and finally gaining acceptance:
no more Neapolitan songs
weeping and tragic
no more De Sica and Magnani
this small immigrant life
this woman unknown

gone is my life in black and white
the black of death
mourning ancestors through
reminiscence and longing
the white of an unfamiliar landscape
indifferent and cold
A fifth-generation Canadian of English, Irish and Scots descent, Alden Hadwen sees things differently. A mother of three and grandmother of four, she works in the city's financial district but lives in the countryside near Guelph, Ontario, located about an hour west of Toronto. Her daily commute provides inspiration for her poetry. Her descriptions of rural scenery and cyclical nature, as seen on the road or in the privacy of her garden, are generally lush and full of flowers, a celebration of life's possibilities, "like the miracle of calf being born / in a barn near here / the beginning of everything."

These lines are from "Eden's Light," a poem from Hadwen's latest collection, Isle of Grace, her third book of poetry, following Beautiful Druid in 2007 and 12 Hockey Poems in 2011. The book teems with observations of quotidian life, from the making of grape jelly to noticing how the soft light of a porcelain chandelier illuminates a friend's "fine intelligence" and "gentle grace of her being." Hadwen writes simply in order to uncover simple truths. With clear and concise language, she pinpoints the mysterious within the domestic. "Pies and Quiche," for example, captures in loving detail Hadwen's grown sister in the act of baking on an annual visit back to the family home. The poem resonates with the chop of fruit under a sharp knife, and the smell of strong tea brewing alongside conversation in a closed but familiar kitchen. The talk roams freely, touching on "children, marriage, friends, health / presents to make, books, music / triumphs, troubles, trials and tears...." Quietly empathetic, Hadwen allows the scene to unfold as it will, without intervention -- a meditation on the strength and security of family:
my sister has created this busy day in the kitchen
like saying
"here is the campfire
grow a holly horn hedge around
to protect this safe place"

"do not notice please
that I cut no stars of dough
to garnish the crust"
not fanciful
not this time
Elsewhere, Hadwen writes keenly about natural phenomena waterfalls, snowfalls, and the "swaying slow and sonorous" of a Douglas Fir "on the lee side of a little cabin" during a night of strong wind at the cottage overlooking Lake Huron. A Group of Seven painting recast as a poem. But these aren't just pretty word pictures. Hadwen captures a world in flux her own children growing and begetting children of their own, the old ways falling beneath the march of progress. Change is inevitable, but it also gives cause for concern. In "Barns," Hadwen describes the once familiar sight of "stone foundation wooden barns of Ontario" in the process of becoming a distant memory:
it seems
in 2016

as if by some order of extinction
these barns are falling in on themselves
one sees ruins
soon the grasses will grow over the stones

my grandsons already say
"we've seen these in books"
when I point out the still standing country barns
Hadwen also writes wistfully about sex, relishing the memory of "long slow kisses that never end" and warm caresses experienced at daybreak. These are love poems and also poems of seduction, thrillingly unselfconscious and alive. Hadwen luxuriates in the erotic, frequently taking the lead as she writes in the poem, "Lioness":
gliding between the sheets
to curve behind you
my bare breasts pressing against your back
my thighs behind your thighs
breathing so close to your ear and neck
your scent
intoxication of desire
Patriarca also writes about sex, but rarely with the same sense of abandon. The Catholic Church always gets in the way. Sex in her poems and short stories is equated with sin. It is frequently dark, furtive, abusive. Love seems beside the point. Women of her mother's generation, and these are the women she mostly addresses through her work, were taught to marry, have children, be wives and then mothers and basically suffer through it. Sons are prized and daughters mostly not. Patriarca writes sarcastically of the burden of her sex in "My Birth," a poem from the Italian Women and Other Tragedies collection:
my father is a great martyr
he has forgiven me everything
even my female birth
Actually, she's kidding. In another poem, "Daughters," the father character demonizes his girl child, calling her whore and Devil:
his eyes were coral
as he rammed his fist
inside my mouth
reminding me
It's unclear if the description is rooted in autobiography, but her writing strongly intimates that Patriarca had a troubled relationship with her father, long deceased. He appears to have tormented her early in life. In her poems, she alludes to having had therapy to see her way to the other side of his abuse. She also writes about making frequent visits to his grave as part of a journey towards self-understanding and forgiveness. Whatever he did left her terribly sad, and guilt-ridden. But Patriarca knows she needs to get beyond it. "Time to stop," she writes in "Another November Visiting You":
i have written about you
the conflicts
the reconciliation
enough confessions
put an end to it
the modern word
a word with no meaning
Patriarca finds solace elsewhere, under the patient gaze of a loving husband, a daughter who is her everything and an aging mother whose memories are Patriarca's inheritance, the stories she feels compelled to write. It's a woman's perspective, different from Hadwen's in many ways, but just as proud, personal and meaningful.

The books of Alden Hadwen and Gianna Patriarca are available online through Amazon.ca. Patriarca's book are also available through Indigo.ca and through her publishers: Guernica Editions, Quattro Books and Inanna Publications. On Tuesday, June 6, Gianna Patriarca will be giving a reading in Toronto as part of the Art Bar Poetry Series. More info here. 

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large. On May 24 (12:30pm), she will be giving a lecture entitled The Beatles: Still in Style for the Women's Art Association of Canada in Toronto. For more information, please visit here

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