Review of Snow Formations

Snow Formations

Carolyn Souaid's book is deeply involved with the Canadian North, specifically the Ungava coast, where she spent three years as a teacher.  She daringly modernizes an important Inuit story in a set of poems, "Sedna: An Inuit Myth (Appropriated)," and the protagonist of the title sequence transgresses boundaries by falling in love with a 17-year-old boy.  Souaid has skill enough to justify her audacity.  Her Sedna is brilliantly conceived as a mythical deity and as a contemporary woman impatient with foolish men.  In "Evening with the Shaman," Sedna has a man over for a dinner date and puts John Coltrane on the stereo. The poem switches between northern myth and contemporary practices: the predetory man "eyes her layered red cache," but she offers him a heart of lettuce.  When he tries to seduce her, she figuratively entangles him in her snake-like hair.   The narrator's comment is "Go, girl." In the finest poem in the sequence, "Stars," questions of fate are probed through images of stars, hands, and cards.  The poem recalls the famous scene in which Sedna's father tries to save himself from a storm by throwing his daughter overboard and has to sever her clinging fingers by smashing them with a paddle.  Souaid's refracts that story into a scene in SoHo with a gypsy fortuneteller dealing cards.  The poem confidently brings together images of hands (Sedna's father with the paddle, Sedna's hands, the gypsy's hands revealing or at least controlling fate) and stars, bringing the images together brilliantly in the fortune telling scene: "My sweating palms made stars."  The conjunction of images is an unexpected felicity.  The Sedna poems are cultural appropriation, yes, but T.S Eliot sadi that bad poems borrow, good poets steal.  

If Souaid appropriates a myth in the "Sedna" poems, the narrator of the "Snow Formations" sequence longs to appropriate a person, a teenaged Inuit boy.  The narrative was inspired by a news story about a school teacher involved with a student.  Souaid manages to make this romance believable and moving, without excusing the element of exploitation, which the narrator says was mutual.  And in telling the story she evokes the harshness and beauty of the North, and the moods of despair and boredom it can generate.  Souaid's North is sometimes squalid, but she does the people the courtesy of writing honestly, not sentimentally.  One of the finest poems is "Inukshuk," spoken by one of those cairns which serve as a marker in the almost featureless Arctic landscape.  The cairn, which says it has been standing since the time of the Vikings, is a symbol of the edgy woman who narrates the love poems: 

Let me tell you about the stone 
will. How even through the
poignant light of softer days
I go on, standing. 
Visibly intact. Touch me, 
and I fall apart. 

Oddly, the poems in the opening and closing sections of the book, set "South of the treeline," are much less effective than the Arctic works, as if the poet's imagination needed to be galvanized by the sharp Northern experience.  The other poems sometimes editorialize about modern times and are dotted with rhetorical questions.  Souaid's Arctic voice doesn't ask, it tells, with eloquence and colour.  

— Bert Almon Montreal Review of Books

More Reviews of this title

Snow Formations

Both the mood and method of St. Lambert, Quebec poet Carolyn Marie Souaid's Snow Formations, her third collection, are entirely different. Based on her experiences teaching in northern Quebec, it features pared-down, imagistic intensity and an ironic tone. The first section, pre-departure, conveys her boredom and lack of fulfillment. Then comes her flight north: "my fissured, brown/liver-spotted towns/vaporized in the dark air/and then I woke, the world had accumulated again/ outside my window/ the strapping, white, freshness of it/ shoveling life/back into my eyes."

Of course, this is a familiar ritual (reject civilization, reclaim the senses in an encounter with the Natives and Nature). But Souaid is no sentimentalist; wary of easy answers, she's as cautionary as she is celebratory about the North and Inuit life.

The images are particularly vivid—and unsettling—when she writes of the natural world. "Cabin Fever" evokes a feeling of menace as winter closes in ("the grey void of water, /the one wrong slip to certain death..the cold shoulder/ of snow against the door, the house"). Elsewhere, she writes of the solstice: "Earth suddenly sped up a notch while/ Hades breathed deeply from the night between the rocks."

In one poem, Souaid invites the reader to "feed on the world,/one breath at a time." That invitation is made compelling by these vivid, brooding poems.

The Toronto Star

Snow Formations

The collection Snow Formations is loosely based on Carolyn Marie Souaid's own experiences in Inuit settlements along the Hudson-Ungava coast in Northern Canada.

Souaid's first two books were both short-listed for Quebec's A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. This third book came about from a 13-minute commission for the CBC radio series Home and Away that featured five Canadian poets writing from a cross-cultural perspective.

Souaid is passionate about the physical beauty of nature. She wants us to notice "the Earth's exquisite intricacies...Victorian lace./Spiderwebs. the organza wing/ of a common fly" so that we too can appreciate the scrap-yard world of the north, an "old brown woman in mukluks/and mismatched clothes embellishing the days/with colourful yearn." The relationship of the modern Inuit world juxtaposed with the "strapping, white, freshness" of the landscape is a bracing one.

The poems, like "snow formations," tell about the hard-edged life of the North. It's in this title-section, containing the bulk of the poems, that Souaid's voice comes across best.

The Montreal Gazette

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