Review of Ignite
“Rona Shaffran’s new book of poetry, her first published collection, follows a lustless couple through a transformative journey from disconnect to rekindled passion.
The woman’s magic-realist voyage to an exotic locale leads to a personal and, consequently, joint awakening, which causes the couple to Ignite, the book’s title, as they grow older together.
In her personal life, too, Shaffran – a.k.a. Rona Shaffran-Tannenbaum – is no stranger to the idea of a transformational journey: after 30 years with the Auditor General of Canada’s office, she went from government bureaucrat to published creative writer, starting on her new career path at 51.
“I guess it’s a story about never really knowing where an event is going to take you,” said Shaffran, 62, referring to her own story this time.
While waiting for a delayed flight at the Rome airport, in 2001, she struck up a conversation with the woman sitting beside her, who recommended she visit the volcanic islands on the Tyrrhenian Sea between Sicily and the Italian mainland.
“From the minute she described those islands to me ... It was like a calling,” Shaffran said.
She and her husband, Brian Tannenbaum, went there the following year.
“I felt, somehow, a sense of familiarity ... almost like a coming home,” she said. “And, the landscape, it was so mesmerizing to me that I began to write ... furiously.”
Until then, she’d written only intermittently, particularly in high school and university, she said, wondering aloud whether it was all “beshert.”
The ideas in the book came to her one afternoon on the hotel’s terrace, staring at “the volcano, a creature asleep; on its belly, stretches out; along the centre of the island,” as she describes it in the poem “Chimera.”
But she never envisioned a book, per se. Like Shaffran, that concept evolved over 11 years as she honed her craft at the Humber School for Writers, the Banff Centre Writing Studio, and Ottawa’s Tree Reading Series, which she co-directed from 2009 to 2012 and where she still sits on the board.
Although she wrote the poems separately and non-sequentially, “the pieces seemed to fall together,” she said.
Ignite, which Shaffran called a story of “hope, renewal and change,” is comparable to a small novella. Each poem is a moment, or vignette, in an overall story, but can also be read individually. Thinking of it as a novel helped Shaffran dig deeper into the characters and their motives, she said.
In the book, “Language is used sparingly,” comments Canadian poet Barry Dempster, in a quote on the back cover. “It isn’t until after a page has been turned that you notice each line is bleeding just a little around the edges.”
“I just find it very challenging to say a lot with few words,” Shaffran explained. “It’s economical, but powerful ... it’s compressed, but it expands at the same time.”
That stripped-down, succinct style – refined by her years in the civil service – gives readers space to inject their own imagination and experiences into Shaffran’s work, which is exactly what she’s after.
“I don’t want it to be a passive experience,” she said. “The exciting part is when another person connects with what you’re saying.”
She said she hopes her clean, minimal approach, combined with the poems’ arrangement in a narrative form will help her connect with a broader audience than most poetry books reach.
“Poetry is often difficult to understand and people kind of steer away from it, but I think in this case ... the poems are understandable,” she said.
Shaffran is now working on a second book of poetry and prose, as well as starting a new reading series with Rod Pederson called “Railroad.” Visit ronashaffran.ca for more information on Shaffran or Ignite.”
More Reviews of this title
“. . .A large part of how we identify ourselves is through our relationships with others. Rona Shaffran's Ignite, published by Signature Editions, is a collection of poems that takes a heartbreakingly honest look at the broken relationship between a man and a woman as the two move toward healing through a physical process of self-discovery. The poems use language that evokes primal reactions as we witness the rediscovery of desire on the path to repairing what is broken.”
“For Rona Shaffran, the ground beneath her feet is important. The linked poems in this collection present some of the most honest and true poetry I have read recently. Ignite opens with a sequence of poems bathed in mid-winter light. The heat in a relationship between a man and woman has gone cold, emotionally and sexually. Its dying embers are described clearly by the woman, especially in the first three poems of the book. “Impasse” contains these troubling and fearless lines about her partner’s arrival home:
You scan my body
as though looking
for an answer and say,
the electric today.
As he climbs the stairs, her partner is more concerned about his new “navy Nubuck shoes” than about her. So concerned, he thinks:
the double scallop
of your hips
as you stand
there on the landing,
your wedge of dark curls
I just can’t
seem to face.
While reading these lines, just for a moment, I thought I heard echoes of Sexton talking to Roethke.
But the voice here is Shaffran’s own, speaking the naked truth in the woman’s voice, and then in the man’s. This is daring, high-wire poetry that requires perfect balance between the female and male personas. This balance and credibility in a dialogue between two voices is difficult to achieve convincingly, yet in Shaffran’s hands, it appears to be easy—it isn’t.
The second section of Ignite opens with an epigraph from “Life is Motion,” a poem by Wallace Stevens devoted to “Celebrating the marriage / Of flesh and air.” This section includes poems set on an island where there is a change, or transition, to a place where love and passion are re-awakened, as is evident in the poem, “Ignite:”
Supine on moist sand,
my spine curves
to meet the lissome earth
Kindled by a tangelo sun,
The third and final section of Ignite is the shortest and one of the strongest in this noteworthy collection of poems. The epigraphs in Ignite quote the mid-20th century poets Anne Sexton, Theodore Roethke, and Wallace Stevens. Sexton’s work was deeply personal and sometimes troubled. Roethke’s distinctive poetry, such as “In a Dark Time,” was also troubled. And Stevens’ was brilliant and often cool. The best of these influences and a number of others are apparent in the sometimes cool and hot bursts in Ignite.”
“Ms. Shaffran’s writing is clean and insightful, her very personal imagery often painful in its descriptive beauty. The biting but artful observations she makes of the search for self within another are direct and clear. It is her womanly fingerprint on each page that ensures the reader is never left wondering what precisely this poet is driving at or attempting to say. Ms. Shaffran opens doors and windows, pulls back curtains and rolls up blinds fearlessly. This self examination and exposure are the mark of a genuine poet and one that cannot be faked by even the most technically skilled wordsmith. There are no smoke and mirrors here, but rather trembling hands trying their damnedest to hold the fragile heart of another lest we break our own. There is granite wisdom on every page of this book, a knowledge one can only accrue through the risk of trusting your heart to another. If there is one book that should be on the gift list for newlyweds, this is it.”
“It is too easy to differentiate between literary styles. Poems go in one group, fiction in another, and drama is often seen as if it were a whole separate species. The best story telling, however, often ignores the boundaries between genres, and opts instead to mix and match different traditions until a unique work is produced. This thought occurred to me while reading Ignite by Ottawa-based writer Rona Shaffran. If you were to go into a book store or library, you would almost certainly find this work in the poetry section. This categorization, however, does not fully describe this intriguing book... The flow of the story left me with the feeling that I was reading a novella rather than a collection of poems. Divided into three sections/chapters, and a mere 92-pages long, Ignite offers an interesting take on the loss of passion, the search to rekindle love, and how a couple deal with the change in their relationship after the parameters that had previously defined them have been altered.”
“In her debut collection, Ignite, Rona Shaffran explores the subject of marital alienation with spare, muscular lines and startlingly original imagery. Heartache and despair are nothing new to poetry; indeed, poets Sharon Olds and Carol Ann Duffy have both recently written major works charting the end of a great love. What Shaffran writes, though, is something new and unexpected, something I have not seen in any collection. Without giving away the mysterious transformation in Ignite, let me simply say that this is a profoundly hopeful book for all who have stood on the abyss of a love affair and looked down. I would have liked to see a poetic investigation of such passionate transformations that extended beyond the personal, the mysterious and the miraculous (as finely wrought as these poems are). I wanted the author's insight; is this something that all great loves must pass through, either surviving it or being shattered by it? But perhaps the author's refusal is her own answer; Shaffran insists on an unflinching examination of a particular life, and it is up to her readers to draw their own conclusions about the universal. Shaffran's is a passionate and powerful new voice in Canadian poetry.
Rachel Rose, is the author of three collections of poetry, as well as essays and short stories, has been published in literary magazines and anthologies in Canada and the United States. She has won the Bronwen Wallace Award for fiction, the Quebec Writers Federation A.M. Klein Award for Poetry, the Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry. She is poetry and lyric prose mentor in The Writer's Studio at Simon Fraser University.”
“An admission, I saw this book as a manuscript/work in progress. Luckily, for us, the reader, so did: John Barton, Karen Connelly, Carolyn Forche, Daphne Marlatt, Susan McMaster, Stuart Ross, Olive Senior, D.M. Thomas and Jan Zwicky. Rona Shaffran is that very rare poet who seeks out the advice of others and then actually uses it. The evidence is here.
The book I saw has vanished and in its place Shaffran presents us this highly polished gem. Ignite.
The book starts with poems of a quiet desperation, a middle-aged woman's angst over the loss of love as a romantic or platonic pastime. The resolution of which is solved by poems that luxuriate in the ribald pleasure of lust as the relationship is brought back to fiery life.
Rona Shaffran is fearless and these pages blister with rekindled passion as Shaffran builds tension out of touch.
Shaffran is wantonly wicked at times but always in full control of her precise language. This book almost shudders in your hands as physical love and emotional passion are entwined. This book is never tawdry, but it certainly is robust. On these pages the horny Erica Jong battles it out with the contemplative Slyvia Plath on an erotic playground until Shaffran has reached an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
This is a stunning first book full of strong poems.”