Review of Away


Away, Andrea MacPherson's most recent book of poetry follows the poet on her travels from Ireland to Scotland, France to Greece. While none of the poems experiments particularly with the travel genre, each section captures a snapshot moment. What you'll find here is steady, dependable reflections on what it means to journey. The opening poem, "St. Stephen's Green Dublin in May" is exemplary of the collection: "Standing under a great green tree/thankful for this reprieve from concrete and stone/(a reminder of the west coast of Canada/ the only scent missing is the sea)./ .... /Behind me the Green is lit with sunlight/and the pond is calm as sunday sleep/as if this city has never known sorrow/never felt it close and taught at marrow."

— Erin Wunker Canadian Literature

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MacPherson's second collection Away: Poems contains travel poems that narrate a making of the unfamiliar personal. On a journey that charts characters and events in family histories, the poems are grouped according to geography: Ireland, Scotland, France and Greece. At times, the speaker is accompanied by a travelling companion and even offered guidance over the telephone, but, in some cases, the advice is not taken: "I did not buy street maps of Dublin./I hoped not to see the street name, awkward/high in the air like a kite./Over the phone you had spelled it slowly/urged me to mark it on paper." The title of this poem, "what I did not see while in Ireland," reveals that the speaker will not see the spelled-out street "that you lived on as a child," but she also hints at the reasons why in the lines that follow this telephone conversation: "I would later tell you that I forgotten;/that I could not retain your past." Concluding this poem with the third item not seen in Dublin — "Your shadow. By then I had stopped searching for it" — prompts readers to understand that more than what is photographed in her travel poems affects this speaker. Amid these personal memories, cultural memories of violence and hardship surface throughout these poems of Ireland and Scotland, such as in the poem "walking Shankill ROad," dedicated to poet George McWhirter, which tells of places that "have yet to be rebuilt,/are still small memorial pyres even now/under the hot May sky, the unrelenting stillness of peacetime." The word still repeats in the last two stanzas of the poem to convey what continues to remain and yet the final lines use this word to conflate danger and hopefulness in past memories: "You may have once climbed rubble much like this/played hide and seek on this new terrain/somehow still fearless."

Photography recurs throughout the poems, providing an ekphrastic element and reminding readers that MacPherson captures scenes in poetry as though taking pictures. In fact, the collection opens with a poem that describes two photographs: "In St. Stephen's Green we take two pictures/I/Standing under a great green tree/thankful for this repreive from concrete and stone/(a reminder of the west coast of Canada/the only scent missing is the sea). [...] II/These strange, emaciated copper men:/a reminder of the Great Hunger./Their heads are bent awkwardly,/necks as thin as wrists;/so slight they might collapse from touch;the heat of a palm unbearable ("St. Stephen's Green")

Sight is at the forefront of this poem as we move from figure to figure: firstly, the figure of the speaker who remembers the scene of the sea and, secondly, the statues who remember suffering, causing the speaker to comment that this sight itself "might be what we have come for [...] the way light catches the tips of their fingers/and reminds us that they were once human." Along with foregrounding the visual in this ekphrastic poem, there are poems that convey an awareness of when photographs are taken. For example, while in Scotland, "in the backyard on Old Glamis Road" documents the process of taking a photograph of two girls, Jess and Nicola, who stand in the soil already making a photographic imprint with their feet in soil. With the mention of "tiny prints her feet leave," it is as though these prints have inspired the taking of the photo and perhaps the poem as well: "I take their picture while they stand together,/the fence and filigreed carrot tops behind them./Nicola pinches Jess's hand/and I wait for tears: but she has become bored with her sister,/the camera's flash already./She is busy inspecting her toes." The girl attnds to her own feet that imprint the soil while this photographic imprint is carried out; yet, for the reader, all of these activities take place in the space and language of the poem itself. The poet is the lens of observation, a point gestured towards in the epigraph to Away by 13th century Persian poet Moslih Eddin Saadi: "A traveller without observation is a bird without wings." We might re-phrase this epigraph to suggest that a reader of these observations must also observe them attentively and, therefore, must consider the significance of the moment in which they are observed. Travel poems need this critical lens in order to not be read as merely subjective reflections; due to the highly personal nature of the memories recovered in Away, there is a further necessity to ask what these observations offer to the reader.

The sections "Ireland" and "Scotland" are the longest and most intimately layered with the task of uncovering personal memories and placing them within a previously unknown landscape. Often this recovery involves an imagining of embodied interaction with geographic location: "Cows move closer to the fence, curious/about the snapshot, the camera's flash./Your grandmother was born in the bed upstairs,/and perhaps this is why we have come here:to remember the view of eighty acres from the bedroom window,/the patchwork fields bordered by crude fences,/a cottage rendered roofless by an autumn storm./To put your feet where your grandmother stood once./("doors")"

Writing memory in this way causes readers not only to participate in this imagining but also to consider the potential within the poetic imagining but also to consider the potential within the poetic imagination to conjure, or re-enact, a personal history as a means of understanding. The reader considers what it means to stand where one's grandmother stood, or, as in the poem's conclusion, to visually and physically perform memory: "you picture her/hand on the knob late at night/the cool shock of metal after rain./Her fingers would sing in response." Crossing over into Scotland, the memories are no longer referred to as those of a travelling companion but rather of one's own: "This, my ancestor's first knowledge of the sea:/nothing gentle or forgiving" ("refugees"). Speaking of her mother in "blue salt" and her grandmother in "recipe cards," the speaker infuses memories of ancestors with her observations of this country: for instance, at the post office where her grandmotehr had worked as a young woman, she wonders: "Maybe I will be able to still catch her/reflection in the Post Office/window; perhaps all this time/she has been waiting for me" ("Mayfield Post Office"). If she were to look in this window, she would see a reflection of herself. But, even though the implications of this self-reflection are not fully pursued in the poems, the act of seeing this palimpsest of reflection is perhaps what the speaker searches for in her travels.

There are two interstitial sections entitled "Between" that only contain three poems but portray perhaps the most provocative connections among these varying travel destinations. Conection is important not only thematically (due to the poems being about connection and lost connections whether in travel of in life) but also because there is a sense of disconnect from the first two sections of the book to the last. While the poems in "Ireland" and "Scotland" possess the common thread of a familial re-living of memory in situ, the poems in "France" and "Greece" often concern the writer's meditations upon specific places that, althought insightful, do not contain the same thread of re-locating memory through embodied place. Yet, might this be an attempt to depict the poet's voice as in-the-present, rather than looking backwards? Nevertheless, especially since there are these sections of poems as in-between, there could have been more attention to how these later poems interact with the first, as gestured to in one of the "Between" poems entitled "where I will learn to pray" that does link all four geographical locations as each stanza returns to a place visited by the speaker: "St. Patrick's Cathedral in the morning," "Clepington Church in the rain," "Saint Chapelle at noon," and "an unnamed church in Athens in the sun." These places of worship provide a meeting of geography in the poet's travels and a site for the convergence of past and present conveyed in the final stanza of this poem: "Stone meets wood,/as if weight might change devotion to something less temporary./Something mossy and fragrant to hold,/breathe the days back in."

A meeting of natural materials, stone and wood, leads to a tactile touch of the present, allowing the speaker to "breathe the days back in." Interestingly, this poem precedes the final section, "Greece," and, therefore, we have not yet stood with the poet in the "unnamed Church in Athens." In contrast to lingering shadows of the past that inform the earlier poems, we now look ahead to the future. Although the poems in the final section often describe each day's events as observations in a travelogue, the speaker intermingles these observations with thought of return: "I dream of places I will go once home:/thick rainforests, yards of lilac and rose bushes/circular parks with lagoons." Here, in "the geography of the bougainvilla," the poet craves water: "a longing for the possibility of moisture." Phrasing this longing in terms of wanting "new knowledge," or rather "something alive, breathing," she transitions into the future tense in order to imagine a future geography and what poetic attention can be given to it: "Listen to the sound of falling rain./I will hold my hands to branches for the dewm/relearn the taste of green." In this relearning, she evokes a return to familiar landscapes yet she returns with a new perceptual lens of embodied memory.


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