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July 19, 2012

Threading the Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry by Lorri Neilsen Glenn

“The essay wants to go its own way. In an unstable world, we want to know what we’re getting, and with an essay, we can never be sure. Partaking of the story, the poem, and the philosophical investigation in equal measure, the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go. Places we may not want to go. We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave. That’s the risk we take when we pick up an essay.” –Susan Olding, The Trying Genre

In Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s essay collection Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry, we’re given a sense of what we’re getting with its first sentence, “This parcel of essay and verse and anecdote…”, and I love parcels. But it’s true that the reader embarks on the book with just just a vague idea of the parcel’s contents, unsure of where the  sentences will lead. The title doesn’t help much either–my husband spotted the cover the other night, and was concerned a book exploring loss and poetry might send me melancholic (and as he has to live with me, he has a right to be concerned).

But it’s not like that at all; light is the word. The book takes its title from the painting by Mark Tobey which, Neilsen Glenn tells us, inspired John Cage to understand that “[w]hen we pay attention to anything–a bird wing, a man sleeping on an open grate, the horizon–it becomes a magnificent world worthy of your attention.” In her bookish parcel, Neilsen Glenn pays attention, digs to the foundations of her preoccupations, and most of these surround instances of loss, the irresolvable– a boyfriend’s suicide, her son’s disability, her mother’s death, the death of a friend, others’ losses, the crash of Swissair Flight 111 not far from her home ( a sound she thought was thunder). Compassion, late blooming (arm-in-arm with motherhood), war and sons, the domestic (“Whatever our differences, there is still laundry”), decades flying by, community and retreating, the art of losing, the gaps in women’s history, encounters with cultural others, on writing communities and the generosity and respect necessary for such communities to thrive. She is drawn to cemeteries, the graveyard in Halifax where the Titanic’s victims are buried, Margaret Lawrence’s grave. The shadows, of course, which come with the light. “The dead carry knowledge that the living cannot. It is we, here, now, who are in the dark.”

The book is the story of Neilsen Glenn’s own progress toward spirituality and poetry. Her narrative is circuitous, undulating, and if I traced it with a pencil, it would end up looking like the Mark Tobey painting. Which means that I’m having as much difficulty as the subtitle is in describing to you precisely what this book is, but I will tell you that the experience of reading it was was a pleasure. That it joins my list of amazing essay collections by Canadian women, books which I might line-up side-by-side and point to when I tell you, “Here’s my personal philosophy. Here’s what it’s all about.”

3 thoughts on “Threading the Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry by Lorri Neilsen Glenn”

  1. Heather says:

    I will seek this one out! Thanks Kerry.

  2. Nico says:

    I can no longer count on one hand the number of books I’ve picked up because I first read about them in your thoughtful reviews here. Incredibly, I’ve yet to regret a single one.

    1. Kerry says:

      That makes me so happy! Thank you.

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