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Pickle Me This

October 8, 2014

Light Light by Julie Joosten

light-lightYesterday’s announcement of the nominees for the 2014 Governor’s-General literary prizes seemed the occasion I’ve been waiting for to reread Light Light, by Julie Joosten, which is one of the contenders for the poetry award. I first read Light Light in the spring, on the recommendation of some of my cleverest friends, and while I adored it just as much as they’d predicted I would, I wasn’t ready to write about it yet. It’s a collection about intangibility, so it’s fitting that I wasn’t sure how to hold it. Though I confess that sitting down to reread it last night in a sitting hasn’t brought me closer to an understanding of what’s going on at the heart of this collection—at the heart, I suppose, there is mystery, and while I’m baffled by so much of it, I am just as much in awe.

In awe of the connections Joosten makes between ecology, history, natural history, technology and language. At how she uses the smallest and most ordinary words (and things) and obfuscates them by subtle arrangements. The idea of gentle as a verb. The sentience of plant life: “A violet trumpet vine extends a tendril, gentles into a hole/ withdraws.” The word tendril. “The pleasure that you exist/ You a source of thought, not its object/ It rains/ You reach for an umbrella and open it.”

My favourite parts of the collection are the stories of Maria Sibylla Merian, a 17th century botanist (who was “Enchanted by subtleness”), and Anna Atkins, the first female photographer with her cyanotype images of algae. Since encountering Victorian entomologist Eleanor Ormerod in Virginia Woolf’s “Lives of the Obscure”, I’ve been fascinated with these stories of early female scientists, and I particularly love that Joosten has de-obscured these figures by including them with the more familiar touchstones of Darwin and Thoreau. The effect of her subtle subversion is remarkable.

I love the final poem, “the lighthouse revolving,” though I do not profess to able to keep an image in my mind of what is illuminated, which is mostly the point. Its final lines: “In lightning/ flashes to escape the laws of the world, these flashes lightening/ us.”

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