I meant to post this last November, but I can add now that this book has been short-listed for the BC Book Prizes this spring.
After All These Years
Laisha Rosnau. Our Familiar Hunger. Gibsons, BC: Nightwood Editions, 2018.
~ Reviewed by John Lent
Laisha Rosnau’s latest book is a beautifully crafted suite of poems about generations of incredibly tough, joyous and risk-taking Ukrainian women whose stories mirror a spectrum of immigrant history, especially Canadian history. The poems range widely from past to present—from young women ending up on brutal Saskatchewan homesteads after the turn of the last century, fleeing the usual mix of poverty and patriarchy, to another generation of young women, one hundred years later, being bought and sold on Eastern European websites, trying to escape the same things—and in that combination and reach, the poems achieve a complex acoustic filled with hunger, voices and a silent persistence that survives. It’s a vast story.
Rosnau’s book is divided into four sections that focus on three generations of women. The poems move back and forth between the present legacy of those immigrant women and the actual experiences and risks in the past that drove them here in the first place. What is amazing―behind these stories and voices―is that the strength demanded of these women surfaces over and over again, and reminds the reader of a hunger that still persists and a silence and invisibility that still persist as well. In “Still Hungry,” Rosnau tries to locate this longing and invisibility:
[…] they filled their heads with dark sky
above water, lined their stomachs with
the sharp edge of stars.
Our grandmothers’ mouths became
the mouths of our children,
Often our hunger is the only noise in the room.
The other side of this hunger and invisibility, not surprisingly, is the strength and power that surface because of the first side, and Rosnau captures this strength and power throughout the book. She points to a passionate sense of abandonment, and dare-devil sexuality, for example, in “Let’s Call It”:
Let’s appear on bridge decks about to jump,
or mid-fall, our bodies weighted with air.
Let’s appear in hospital beds and psych wards
and while we’re there let’s not say anything,
except when we do and then let’s talk
about what we believe to be true,
or whatever we please. Let’s manage
to speak and say nothing at all.
In another poem,“The Black Sea,” the long, bloody reach of immigrant sacrifice is envisioned in a surreal tapestry of birth imagery:
We held our stomachs as we disembarked,
queasy with birthing ourselves
into a new world. They pulled our hands
from our waists, pushed gemstones to our palms.
Skyscrapers scratched a dry heat
and the wealthy dragged sharp objects
along our skin until we bled jewel tones:
Ruby, garnet, sapphire, onyx.
This wild power and fierce birthing is so strong in these poems that the reader begins to see what these risks and hunger and silences have gone into creating: a sometimes subterranean, crazy and wilful power that we are all grateful for now because we know it is a part of a present we enjoy because of such boldness: “Let’s make an industry/of ourselves, or not. Let’s rest/when we need to/Let’s marry men called Jack and George/and call it a day.”
Rosnau’s careful use of concrete, earthy situations and crisp imagery-driven fields of vision, combined with her strong, rhythmic phrasing, keep these poems deft, edgy and boisterous with surprise as in “When We Haven’t Had Enough,” where she fuses past and present with such gleeful verve:
When we haven’t had enough of being hit,
When we haven’t had enough of being licked,
When we haven’t had enough of being liked
or clicked on, we ask for more, we put ourselves
out there, we put out, we are out for more.
These poems have a strength that reminds me of poets whose work anticipates Rosnau’s in different ways, beginning with Pat Lowther, Leona Gom and Kristjana Gunnars, and eventually including Stephanie Bolster and Roo Borson. Our Familiar Hunger is a shimmering achievement. It reaches for a story we do not hear enough, but need to hear.