Review of 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
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.”
More Reviews of this title
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.”