Writer Eve Joseph stretches herself and her readers’ imagination and intellect in her new prose poetry book Quarrels.
MOST OF US MOVE through our day-to-day lives with a strong sense of what we call reality. It’s a little like staying on the sidewalk: straight, flat, solid. But one might also call it un-nuanced, inflexible, and keeping us at the edge of things. Reality, if we look a little sideways, is much less structured, more surprising, and can lead us into the deepest mysteries.
In her new book Quarrels (Anvil Press), Victoria writer Eve Joseph presents us with a series of short prose poems like windows into the weird and wonderful that is all around us but which we often don’t turn our heads to see. She invites us to bravely enter into our own little quarrels—the back and forths of “it’s this; it’s not”—with the perception of literal truth. For instance, in her work, equally mystifying is a man clapping his hands and filling the yard with owls, and a mother simply answering the phone and turning a house into a room of grief. We encounter a poet’s jar of commas, “like the sheared ears of voles...soft as apricots,” and elsewhere, at a party, enjoy the loving discovery of someone who is “a new music.” Which, really, is the more marvellous?
In these half-page verbal sculptures, Joseph reveals the arbitrariness of our common evaluations of things—of what’s normal or possible, of what or who fits where, and why. “I love where the real can take you,” she tells me, with the smile of someone sharing a secret.
Joseph has previously published two books of poetry and the award-winning memoir In the Slender Margin. These prose poems are something quite different. While they may be somewhat more surreal, they aren’t about escaping reality; rather, following it wherever it might lead. Take the capon that exploded out of a pressure cooker and became stuck on the ceiling. “That’s absolutely true!” she says, laughing. She was 9 years old, and her mother, who ran a salon business from their home, had left it unattended. “You think about that,” she says, “and it just becomes a black chandelier.”
And why not? Things can be what we see them to be. In that, we have some choice. For instance, Joseph’s mother told a questioning client that the barking noise, really from their wringer-washer, was a seal in the basement. And for months, the client brought a dead fish wrapped in newspaper every second Saturday, until she was finally told the seal had been given to the aquarium.
“I never knew what was truth and what was fiction,” Joseph explains, laughing. “And in the end, it didn’t matter. What I understood was that literal truth was far less important than metaphoric truth and the stories we tell ourselves.” So when she found the prose poem genre, it felt familiar. “The prose poets I’m drawn to have a surreal take. That was a form that came out of my life. I like that everything gets invited in, but only the strangest things stay.”
This slim, 85-page volume is divided into three sections. In the first, Joseph highlights the surreality of the everyday through unexpected juxtapositions, slidings, allusions. Non-narrative, these prose poems rely on image, rhythm, tension, relationship, allowing her to follow the real into the shadows, up to the door of Prometheus’ sulphurous bedroom, onto the back of a marvellous fish, or, with her grandfather lying still under the bedspread, “coming and going through the open window, a little further each time.” Playful and heart-wrenching, arresting and disorienting, each page, to me, is the verbal equivalent of stepping into a Joseph Cornell assemblage, where the beautiful, discrete pieces combine into a mysterious harmony where you want to linger because you sense you have something to learn.
The book’s second section is a series of responses to the photographs of Diane Arbus, someone who equally sights directly into the shadows and frames the surreal within the real. Arbus’ lens finds what we walk past every day, and Joseph felt every image was like a prose poem. “This world disappears and you see that.” These are the only works in the book with titles—the titles of Arbus’ photos so that readers can look up Joseph’s inspirations. Seeing them together is another form of juxtaposition, another shift of the gaze that helps us enter Joseph’s experience.
The last and incredibly poignant section centres on the ten days Joseph spent in California when her father called all his children to him as he neared death and then passed away. While death is a reality Joseph is intimately familiar with, having worked in hospice for 21 years, she admits that it’s still new, visceral. “It sounds like a cliché,” she says, “but you are literally at the heart of the human story. There’s no time for niceties, no time for the social ways we enter things. You’re simply there.” But being there means being face to face, as always, with paradox, with things side by side that can’t really be reconciled or explained. As I deal with the aging of my own father, now in his 80s, this section made me consider the many different ways to see someone you love, and yet the impossibility of ever completely doing so. “The line that came to me,” she says sombrely, “is: ‘why hadn’t we met before?’”
The prose poem form may feel familiar to her, but it was also a struggle. “I had a stroke in 2013,” Joseph tells me, “and I didn’t know if I could write again. Throughout the writing of this book, it felt many times like I would strike that flint and no sparks would catch.” A number of writers have used the concept of collision to describe prose poetry as a genre, an idea with which Joseph agrees. “For me it wasn’t a gentle melding of prose and poetry. There was nothing gentle about it. It was a collision. I wrestled with these guys. It is the hardest form I ever worked in.”
After meeting her, I think that not only her tough, determined character but her project here can be described in her line: “Because they said it couldn’t be done, I did it. Everyone agreed it was impossible. It wasn’t hard. The trick was not to think.”
I don’t at all mean these aren’t thinking poems, but they are so strong and limber that they deke around conventional thought, hop the fence, and are exploring up a tree before you can even get across the front yard. Many of us have forgotten how to leap like this. Part of what Quarrels does is show us the valuable skill of being able to enter a mystery not knowing where you’re going to end up.
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig recently moved to Mayne Island in order to lift her head away from the sidewalk a little more often.