Tuesday, July 17, 2007

lady miriam, i presume

Selected Poems from 15 Canadian Poets x3
by Miriam Waddington, edited by Gary Geddes


Professor Waddington will not be
joining the academic procession
she wrote a note to the Dean she
said that her gown was moth-eaten
and she had to stay home to tie up
the chrysanthemums or else they
would flop all over and kill the grass
and she would have to resod around
the flowerbeds a nuisance so she regrets
she will not be able to join the academic
procession if you ask me that woman has
a nerve she's not friendly and further-
more I hear she keeps late hours
looks at men what kind of example is that
for young girls all I can say is some
people are never satisfied

Miriam Waddington is concerned primarily with the interrogation of social norms. In the poem above, the nagging question we are left with is, who decides when a person should or should not be satisfied? Furthermore, the process of gossip is questioned. Who is the voice in the poem? It starts off in an official-sounding register, but by the fourth line of the poem the commentary is catty and back-biting in nature. And at the end of the poem, perhaps the voice shifts again -- who is determining Professor Waddington's level of satisfaction -- or is Waddington herself inserting that last line with a commentary on the gossips? Finally, of course, this poem is about gender roles. What are the challenges of being a woman maintaining a home and a career, and where is the breaking point? And the act of looking at students in a romantic, which especially for the period of this poem would have been perfectly acceptable (and the primary means of wife finding and wife swapping) for the male professors is fodder for critical gossip when engaged in by the female prof. The argument here is not that these actions are ever right, but why is it gossip for one and business as usual for another? Waddington's poetry is brilliant in its ability to force us to look differently at seemingly mundane situations.

Another such example is "My Lessons in the Jail," where Waddington asks us to think critically about the seemingly normal setting of an average prison. She writes that upon entering the jail one must "Salute their Christ to whom you cannot kneel." Waddington comments here upon compulsory faith and the flawed assumption that Canada is by definition a Christian nation. This national assumption marginalizes the other among the others -- that is, the non-Christians among the prison population. The poem is about Waddington's experiences as a social worker, and the "crown of thorns" she has chosen to wear in embarking upon a helping profession. As she leaves the prison, she writes: "Smile at the brute who runs the place / And memorize the banner, Christus Rex." With the focus on the "brutish" management of the jail, Waddington seems to ask if this is a Christian place at all -- without the banner, would you ever believe that God had touched this place?

She draws on her social work experience again in the poem "On My Birthday," where she questions her own ability to separate herself from her work. She refers to "the self I never was," commenting on the fact that her identity is embroiled in those she attempts to rescue. She suggests, considering her divorce, that "the woman from downward is never retrieved." That is, women are socially constructed to lose their identities in marriage, and in motherhood... and those who work outside the home, especially in a helping profession, lose themselves once again.

There is a fear of the future in Waddington's poetry. In "How I Spent the Year Listening to the Ten O'Clock News," she fears the violence and tragedy that seem forthcoming, but feels guilt at her choice not to have children, as she writes: "I have too much / to say thank / God I am too old / to bear children." For a woman of her generation to not desire children was akin to an admission of failure, and because she has the means she feels the obligation. But it's a scary obligation given the wars, tortures, and violence she documents through the poem. In "Ten Years and More," Waddington deals with the death of a spouse she had divorced, writing that she had written him a letter but "I was really saying / for the sake of our / youth and our love / I forgave him for / everything / and I was asking him / to forgive me too." How does one cope with a death and find closure when a divorce stands between the two people? There is a regret for the past here, for not having mended fences earlier, and Waddington seems to be trapped between regretting the past and fearing the future.

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