Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dear Hermes

Dear Hermes... / Michelle Smith
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, c2012.
79 p.

I'm a big fan of epistolary novels but hadn't realized that there was a whole genre of epistolary poetry as well! This collection has some wonderful examples of such poetry, though it is not entirely made up of the form.

Smith addresses varied gods and denizens of the classical world in these poems, mostly in letters (ie: Dear Hermes) However, there are also brief meditations in response to varied pieces of classical art as well as many singular poems about Paris or the author's prairie background. There is a consistency of tone and of perspective throughout that I found satisfying, and a quiet sense of irony and humour that leavens the classical references.

For some reason, many of the poetry collections I've read lately are strongly influenced by classical themes. Perhaps it's an example of synchronicity, as I've also been reading and studying a lot on nonfiction in that area over the past year, although not through any specific plan.

In any case, I enjoyed this collection and its combination of classicism, nature imagery and response to myth and to art. I also really liked the choice of form for most of these poems. As stated on the cover, this collection "exemplifies the lyric self on a poetic grand tour, or pilgrimage, to meet the world." The narrator of the poems is known as "the traveller" and addresses various gods and men -- ie: Hermes, Persephone, Hera, Eros, and Chronos, in one of my favourites which begins:

dear Chronos --

how do you tell time here?

by the sound of waves,
of water slipping up and washing away,
eternal return?

Even in poems which are more personal and reflect both Smith's family history and the idea of memory, classical references abound. In "A Whole Language Surrendered" she discusses her ancestors, immigrants to Canada. It opens with some words about lost words, an evocative verse or two which really caught me:

The words for star, love, hunger.
All sunk deep in the Atlantic. ...

The story of my great-great-grandparents
is hidden in the domain of Hades and Persephone,
whose realm must resemble a great library
of lost tales that is more vast than even the prairies
and their wild leaping from one horizon to the next.

There were a number of poems which I reread and savoured. One, entitled "A Story about a Cat named Clarence", was very moving. It related the relationship of young, gifted girl to her grandmother, and the power of memory between them. It had layers of meaning and I felt past and present combine through -- sentimental though it may sound -- their love for one another and for that long ago cat. All in addition to highlighting the power of stories. I loved this one.

This was a collection in which I found poems to soothe my need for imagery and for twists of the language. I was interested in the stories it told and the echoes set going in my mind as I was reading, and I would recommend it to other poetry readers I know.

This was published by the University of Alberta Press, and once again I must state my admiration for their use of 100% post-consumer Enviro Paper, something they've been consistent in doing, and their equally consistent habit of crediting the proofreader and copyeditor by name. I've admired this in other books they've produced and just wish more publishers would acknowledge the background workers in their credits as well. I love checking it out to see who was involved. It really does make the book feel like a group effort.


For this year's Canadian Book Challenge I've chosen as my theme "Small-Press-Palooza" Thus, for each book I'm including a link to the small press who has published it. Take a look -- there are wonderful small presses all over Canada!


  1. This sounds like an excellent book for National Poetry Month.

  2. It was a wonderful find. I enjoyed the style and especially the familar address to the Gods & Goddesses :)

  3. Yes like the style, thanks for sharing, here's one in return

    from The Rag Rug

    Somebody had made one. You admired it.
    So you began to make your rag rug.
    You needed to do it. Played on by lightnings
    You needed an earth. Maybe. Or needed
    To pull something out of yourself-
    Some tapeworm of the psyche. I was simply
    Happy to watch your scissors being fearless
    Whenever you worked at your carpet I felt happy.
    Then I could read Conrad's novels to you.
    I could cradle your freed mind in my voice,
    Chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence,
    Word by word: "Heart of Darkness,"
    I dreamed of our house
    Before we ever found it. A great snake
    Lifted its head from a well in the middle of the house
    Exactly where the well is, beneath its slab,
    In the middle of the house.
    A golden serpent, thick as a child's body,
    Eased from the opened well. And poured out
    Through the back door, a length that seemed unending-

    Ted Hughes


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