Friday, June 19, 2020

Coming to Canada

Coming To Canada is an autobiographical sequence of poems by Carol Shields from her birth in Chicago that ends when she moves to Canada, newly-married, at the age of 22. It came out in 1992.

The edition I have came is 1995 from Carleton University Press and includes selections from her first two volumes of poetry, other uncollected new poetry, plus an introduction by Christopher Levenson, a Canadian poet.

I never quite know what to say about poetry, so maybe I'll just quote one. From the autobiographical sequence, but not especially autobiographical:

Aunt Ada
Aunt Ada never  went to church
Her head ached or her back
and no wonder 
She had the pies to bake
and the wash and the children under
foot and not so much 
as a minute to sit and ponder
how she'd earned such
blessings or how to take 
the anger from her look
or thunder
from her touch. 
No one remembers
Aunt Ada much,
except she stayed home sick 
on Sundays, rebuked
God, did her work
and grew a little kinder.
I suppose I could make sure you notice the rather sly slant rhyme scheme.

Levenson, in the introduction, almost, but doesn't quite, blame Carol Shields for being so impersonal. Titles of other poems (not from the sequence) include things like "Our Old Aunt Who Is Now In A Retirement Home" and "A Friend Of Ours Who Knits." I think I actually preferred these kind of impersonal poems. Or there was this:

A Physicist We Know
Even while
we talk, he abstracts
himself, making terrier
leaps of speculation
on the quiet. 
His smile
is detached and social,
disenfranchised by
his secret alphabet
of air. 
he emerges in fractions,
lopsided with camaraderie,
looking rather hysterical
and frantic. 
Then we see him sympathetically
as an exile
and don't dare
ask, is it lonely in there?
"terrier leaps" and the closing particularly make that poem work for me.

Still there's no doubt that she's better known as a novelist, and for reason. Levenson's introduction spends at least as much time talking about her novels. I've read some, though not all, pre-blogging, and her biography of Jane Austen more recently. The last of her novels I read was The Stone Diaries, her most famous, so brilliant and so heart-breaking I haven't dared to read another since. I've long felt I need to, and am now beginning to feel I have the strength to, revisit that.


  1. nice but i didn't get the rhyme scheme? my dad was a physicist and that fits him to a T except for the hysterical part (come to think of it, that might have been hidden inside that frosty exterior some where...)

    1. Somehow I imagine looking hysterical and frantic in the poem suggests something about his hair. Maybe almost Einstein-like.

      wonder/under/ponder/thunder/remembers/kinder -- the rhymes are pretty approximate. I see the scheme as only three rhymes throughout the poem, one of them in each verse.

  2. I read Carol Shields long ago. I have always considered Happenstance and The Box Garden to be two of my favorite reads. I've never read her poetry.

    1. The Box Garden is one I own & haven't read. Hmm!

  3. I'm just finishing a reread of The Box Garden (with Bookish Beck) and it's probably going to be just the thing to aid in your recovery from The Stone Diaries (in combination with Small Ceremonies, which has a character in common with The Box Garden). I also really enjoy her short fiction.