Culture & Conversation

Bridging solitudes

Red Fox

La voix de l’ombre, by Annie Molin Vasseur, English translation by Mark Stout, Éditions Caractères
un renard roux/a red fox, by Maxianne Berger, Éditions des petits nuages

Recently across my transom came two small books, both bilingual editions, that carry far greater impact than their diminutive size might suggest.

La voix de l’ombre by Annie Molin Vasseur is a poetic text of 20 pages or so, printed on alternate pages to give its verses appropriate air and weight. Author of a dozen books of fiction, poetry and criticism published by such esteemed Quebec presses as Éditions du Noroit, l’Hexigone, and Prise de Parole, Vasseur was born in France in the late thirties and immigrated to Canada in 1981, settling in Montreal. Since 2006, when a screenplay she wrote was a finalist for INIS (l’Institut National de l’Image et le Son), she has divided her time between writing and film production, producing three short films and, in 2014, the full-length production La voix de l’ombre, from which the text being reviewed was taken.

If one wanted a solid refutation of that old creative writing chestnut, “show, don’t tell,” this book, La voix de l’ombre, would be it. A meditation on poetry, love and the redemptive qualities of suffering, this is commentary at its most forceful, supported by an indefatigable intelligence and only the sparsest tracings of imagery.

Vasseur begins by taking issue with a certain poet (we don’t know who – perhaps a voice within the author herself) who pronounces, “La poesie…ça sert à rien,” or as Mark Stout translates, “Poetry… serves no purpose.” But the author wants to “risquer ma peau,” to deal with deep questions with which she has been struggling for a long time. “Tonight… I want to risk my hide” might be an accurate translation, but seems here unfortunate; “risk my skin,” arguably, is awkwardly foreign, but as it is a certain intimacy and delicacy is lost, as well as the original’s natural segue into a passage like this:

In love, our skin is just a pretext… Longing to pour ourselves into the other, longing to mend our wounded bodies. How do we tell the one we love that we long to touch the true part of his warmness? To take the time to linger there. Time to bring out as they come the tales of lost love and mistakes that remain under our skin. So afraid to give all that is painful in ourselves, so afraid that it will be cast aside.

Along the way are other stark admissions of failure and vulnerability. These are at least somewhat counter-balanced, though, by rarefied lyrical flights, wings over a void: “Love…is like reading a score…All at once, you hear the music.”

By the end of this poignant and utterly absorbing read, the writer convincingly demonstrates that to make poetry is indeed to risk one’s skin, that “poetry might be of some use after all.”

un renard roux/a red fox is Maxianne Berger’s first collection of tanka, after two fine trade book collections mostly in, for want of a better term, western forms. Tanka is an ancient Japanese form usually rendered in English as five lines – a haiku structure plus two (more or less) 7-syllable lines. While the tanka shares the haiku’s concision, it is more expansive and lends itself to direct emotional expression.

Berger translates her own verses, with acknowledgement of editorial help with her French. In the reviewer’s notes, she says that she finds herself “developing most of her tanka (and haiku for that matter) in French and English…backing and forthing between the languages as old words are changed for new…or complete ideas replace discarded ones.”

She handles big themes: love, youth, aging, mortality. These poems evidence sharp intelligence, and some playful imagination, as when leaf boats in a backyard puddle become the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria. A number of poems are downright breathtaking. Consider this example:

life of quarrels
my parents share the same
burial urn
why this thought tonight
tangled in your warmth

Brian Campbell’s most recent book is A Private Collection (Sky of Ink Press). Visit him at

– photo: Mark, Flickr Creative Commons

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