Alison Pick. Question and Answer: Poems.

Roberta Buchanan
Memorial University

Vancouver: Polestar/Raincoast Books, 2003, ISBN 1-55192-623-7

1 ALISON PICK’S POEMS seem to start almost as an exercise. In the first section, "Q & A," a question is taken from some other writer, isolated from its context, and an answer composed, on the principle that all one need do is "ask a question / and the marvellous answer appears." The questions are ominous: "How is one to speak with the dead?" "What colour’s the future?" "What can you believe in?" A "thin shadow of death," sickness, and sadness hangs over some of the poems.

2 In the second section, "(Still) Life," Pick uses fruit as a starting point — apple, cherry, kiwi, orange, pear. Pick’s fruits evoke images of love-making, pregnancy, birth. The pineapple with its "rough / knobby skin" holds "the element / of surprise. Love. That first cut / spilling with wet evening light / that is water and sugar / in bed...." Watermelon suggests pregnancy: the heavy fruit "rolls on its vine / like the child’s floppy head / bloating the space / in your womb." Banana evokes a mother’s joy in her child, and cherry the sensual tongue. Cut in between these sensuous, fruity poems are grimmer poems about her grandmother, a Czech refugee from the Holocaust, who "lost her parents, / her home, religion," her fear "locked ... in her body." Pick uses the desperate simile of a gas chamber with every opening sealed off to suggest her grandmother’s state of mind. Birth is not a joyous event for her: "her cervix like a mouth / and the scream that tore out / was my father" ("Fear 1944").

3 "What They Left Me" refers to the legacy of her great-grandparents: "Two names on a monument at the synagogue in Prague." Thousands of names of those who died in the Nazi death camps are meticulously painted on the white walls of the synagogue, an overwhelming emotional experience for the viewer. The poem is understated, the facts are baldly presented, and the tone seems curiously cool and detached: what remains is the daughter who escaped, her son, Pick’s father, and her "own small life." Yet the last line uncovers the terrible wound borne by the survivors whose lives are stained forever by consciousness of the past: "The first light snow of winter, their ashes at my back."

4 The shock of discovering her repressed Jewish inheritance resonates through many of the poems. Her grandmother’s attitude was to shut out the past, "And God forbid we discuss it" ("Beef Fondue").Imagine the shock, the way you would lose faith if your mother was burned in a furnace ("Faith").

5 The third and final section of the book, "The River Reflected," is about journeys, by road and river: "let that road carry us home," are the final, wishful, words of the book. The opening epigraph from Jane Mead, "bargaining / with my soul," suggests a spiritual dimension to the journey for the poet, for "words come / from God" ("Grace"). The journey also involves exploring relationships, "pushing the limit of our love, / trying to find the place / it would break" ("Driving: Who I Was"). The archetypal Canadian canoe trip in the wilderness involves both solitude, as in "Wind Bound: Being Single," and a yearning for union with the other.We paddle
our cedar canoe out of dreaming
up the thin river of touch.
Our boat is called longing ... ("The Water’s Skin").

6 As with many collections of lyric poems, there are sometimes problems with arrangement. Do the poems tell a story? If so, the fine poem "Infant Abandoned in Hyde Park" seems somehow out of place, poignant though it is. There are few in-felicities — "my heartfelt respect for your verdure / that multiplies air" is one. Pick has a fine lyric gift, and the reader is rewarded with many pleasing images. Dawn is night "polishing / sky with a cloth." Moonlight reminds her of cream: "moon a bowl of cream over fields," "the orchard at night, moon drizzling cream over fruit."