Review of small flames

small flames

Although Dina E. Cox’s work has appeared reg­u­larly in journ­als and antho­lo­gies, small flames is her first col­lec­tion. It’s high time that these accom­plished poems were brought together. Her work is mature, can­did and refresh­ingly straightforward—never shrill, never weighted with social or polit­ical agen­das, never choos­ing the smart word or phrase over the dir­ect one. She writes of a “tenu­ous hold / on life,” and many of her poems deal with this tent­at­ive con­nec­tion between present and past, between the ima­gined and the real. She also touches reg­u­larly on her some­times unsuc­cess­ful search for solid roots in the Mari­time landscape—places that have a “semb­lance of conjunction”—that ought to fit like a puzzle but do not. “I’m temp­ted / to edge them together, cusp and cup, / but it doesn’t work”; there is a dis­par­ity between “what we see” and “what we think / we see.” Repeatedly she describes land­scape as a rep­lica, a back­drop. A view becomes a “Command Per­form­ance… staged for me alone.” These lines are from “Cray­ola Moon,” a short, sat­is­fy­ingly round-voweled poem that emphas­izes the incom­plete­ness of per­cep­tion and rep­res­ent­a­tion: “The bal­loon moon hangs heavy / just graz­ing the hori­zon / tip­ping trees as if / some child had taken cray­ons, / chosen mango orange and out­lined / a three-quarters orb /…. hav­ing no need / to draw the whole.” And in “Dia­gnosis,” the word itself dis­torts the real: “The nam­ing will stick.” What’s out there is altered forever.

Dina E. Cox is a musi­cian (she plays the French horn), so it’s nat­ural for her to use aural as well as visual imagery. Only a musi­cian would write, “I meas­ure horn’s timbre / note by note.” The snow, walked on at mid­night, has a “grainy sound / …a kind / of sand­pa­per fric­tion.” She describes the “phos­phor­es­cent whis­per” of her bones, the “hiss” of the wan­ing moon (it’s likened to “a deflat­ing vol­ley­ball”), and the “bois­ter­ous wild arpeg­gios of dawn.”

Taste (in “Apple”) and the pleas­ure of touch (in “West­min­ster Abbey,” she touches “Chaucer’s voice­less tomb”) are also vividly evoked. In “Touch­ing Rodin,” she dares to lay a hand on a cast torso at a museum, then ima­gines that a lover had “play­fully run / knuckles along the rungs of ver­teb­rae.” Caring for her dying father, she takes his “leathered soles” between her hands.

It is a delight to read “Old Barn” without encoun­ter­ing the inev­it­able three words—grey, lean­ing and weathered—that I’ve come to expect in every poem on this sub­ject. This is a soft, sen­su­ous, ser­i­ous poem: the interior, with its “dust, / so thick you could scoop / hand­fuls,” and the sense of past animal heat and hab­it­a­tion is beau­ti­fully presen­ted. In the title poem, there is an “untouch­able dome” above the campfire’s flame.

In “The Mean­est Flower That Blows,” Dina E. Cox calls the pho­to­graphed image of a Mari­time meadow “an ami­able beauty.” As in her other poems, there is no flour­ish, no excess. small flames, like­wise, is ami­ably beautiful.

— Heather Spears Arc Poetry Magazine

More Reviews of this title

small flames

A Maritimer by birth, Dina E. Cox has lived in Unionville for over thirty years. She and her husband David raised four children within walking distance of Toogood Pond, and are now grandparents to nine. Dina is a writer of both poetry and prose, a former high school English teacher, and a musician who plays in the Markham Concert Band. She began writing seriously after her last child fledged, and has had her poetry published in anthologies and literary journals in Canada, the United States, Bulgaria and Ireland. She is a past winner of the Betty Drevniok Award, Canada’s premier award for haiku in English.

While she is later than many in publishing her first collection of poetry,
Dina believes that the poetry she now writes has been fomenting over a long
period of time, and that she therefore brings a broad range of experience to 
her poems. Because she also writes the smaller Japanese forms, much of her
poetry is focused and specific, and she says that in addition to striving
for exactitude, she also looks to uncover the hidden sparks that live in the
heart of the ordinary.

small flames is, like its title poem, an arrangement of lambent coals which brighten their hot cores under the breath of the reader’s gaze. Quiet, contained poems flare up with the intensity of peak experience – in moments of childhood, womanhood, birth, death and the infinite in a cormorant’s flight or Chaucer’s tomb. Dina E. Cox has the extraordinary gift of having begun to write seriously only after her children had grown, and yet writing as though she were in her twenties – youthful energy, enthusiasm and passion seasoned already with mature wisdom. small flames is a story of beginnings, endings, and of new beginnings.

MAC:    What is it about Haiku that inspires/intrigues you?

Cox: Haiku – it’s such a short poem, but has so much depth when well-written. I started writing haiku to help curb my tendency towards verbosity when writing. Then, I discovered that haiku is more than a short poem: it is an attempt to uncover the very essence of life, to drill through the layers to the actual core. It is a bit like playing the French Horn, which I also do. To do either well, takes years of persistence and practise. I guess it’s partly that challenge that intrigues me. A good haiku makes you say “Ah!” almost involuntarily. A haiku of mine won the Betty Drevniok Award 2000, Canada’s premier award for haiku in English. Here it is, but you should know that ever since then, I’ve been on an uphill climb, striving to return to that same level of creativity.

leaves falling –
the sudden blackness
of branches

MAC: When do you find the time to write and do you have a writing routine?

Cox: I’m not very disciplined and find it very hard to set aside time and head-space in which to write, especially at home, and with nine grandchildren in the picture. I have acquired a small retreat in another province, and a few times a year I go there. There, I have no TV or computer, and I spend my time reading, walking, thinking (I call this clearing the cobwebs), and hopefully, writing! If I need to know what is happening in the world, I have a small radio there which I enjoy. I also take my cellphone (without email) in case I need to be in touch with family back, here, for example, in case of an emergency. Interestingly, there are times I don’t write there at all, but being in that space allows me to write again, once I return home.

MAC: Family ancestry and heritage play an important role in your book.How do you find the balance between fact and fiction in poetry writing?

Cox: Someone, I forget who, once said that poetry is an attempt to express the inexpressible, which is why, often (though not with haiku, which is a very concrete form), poetry employs metaphor and other figures of speech. These are the tools the poet frequently uses, and as such they may indeed give a poem the semblance of being fiction. This however, is seldom the truth. Poetry seeks to uncover the truth, and it uses such devices only as tools. For example, in my book small flames, there is a poem, “His Felt Cap,” which chronicles the day my father and I celebrated his 75thy birthday. In the final stanza I write.

A benediction borrowed from ancient cathedrals,
light found his cap, settled on it, transformed it.
I remember how he came alive for me that day,
his cap drawing rays to itself
as the sun draws water.

This is a very simple, very basic example. Was there really a benediction from ancient cathedrals? If he came alive that day, had my father been somehow dead, before? Did his cap really draw rays to itself? And, if these things aren’t ‘real,’ are they fiction? Of course not. In this stanza, I am trying to show what was special about my father that day, and about our relationship with one another. I am trying to show or evoke a truth, and I use metaphor, simile and some exaggeration to achieve that.

Possibly your question is intended to ask: how do I write truthfully about family without dishonouring them? The answer to that, flippantly, is “very carefully.” In truth though, it is that I always try not to embellish or offend, but to remain always true to the facts in the telling. There are things I’ve not yet figured out how to write about and at the same time honour that space. Perhaps those are the things that are still too close to me, that for me, are still “inexpressible.”

As to family history and ancestry, they have made me who I am today. Perhaps writing about them is my attempt to understand that more fully, to enter into it, and to accept it. I never set out to write a book of poems that would be autobiographical, and yet in some ways, that is what small flames seems destined to have become. The key is to write those poems in such a way that my story is of lesser importance than are the connections my poems make with the reader, and hopefully, the universal emotion they each evoke.

Markham Arts Council

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