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Motherhood, mortality, and occasional bursts of joy

Rachel Rose's poetic star continues to climb

LOVE'S FIRST DECADE. Rachel Rose dedicates a poem to her partner in her new volume of verse. Credit: Wendy D Photo

Poems, my students tell me with clock-like regularity, are difficult. They’re weird, each one striving to be misleading, obscure and perplexing.

According to student logic, then, poets ought to be unconventional creatures that derive secret pleasure from the confusion they inflict on the minds of innocent readers.

Meeting with Rachel Rose at a student hangout in the heart of Kits, there’s not a hint of this dreaded poet personality: exhibiting no dark-circled eyes or eccentric tics, Rose is punctual, smartly dressed, lucid and unfailingly polite.

In fact, as our conversation meanders from topic to topic in the bustling restaurant, any student there would be challenged to locate the poet.

Currently a student as well (in UBC’s prestigious MFA program, where she’s expanding the reach of her writing by developing a screenplay and collaborating on a TV series project), this Vancouverite by way of Montreal, Seattle and Hornby Island is welcoming time away from her other full-time occupation-motherhood (one boy and one girl in the last 5 years).

“I needed to get out of the house,” Rose says to explain her mature student status. “And I needed to get my brain working again.”

A working brain has meant a writing hand.

Rose is a veteran of magazine journalism, and has produced both acclaimed short fiction and Giving My Body to Science (1999), her award-winning poetry debut that came out when she was 29.

Considering that she self-published her first volume when she was 10 (“It was crap,” she recalls with a smirk), it’s not a surprise when Rose exclaims, “I’m passionate about poetry.”

For her, poetry is so magnetic because it’s an ultra-compressed form through which to transmit complex impressions of the world.

Launching in Vancouver on April Fool’s Day, Rose’s sophomore volume, Notes on Arrival and Departure, is anything but silly.

Her influential publisher McClelland & Stewart promotes Rose as “one of Canada’s most exciting and accomplished new poetic voices,” and the work of this new poetic voice is equally meditative and sober.

While there’s no doubting that the poems are beautifully wrought, death figures prominently in them, as does anxiety about daily life on an ever-violent and destructive planet.

Genocide in Rwanda, the murdered “pint-sized tart” JonBenet, and Rose’s own baby (“due to be born on the cusp of another war”) are only a few of the disturbing images floating from the striking assemblage of words.

Even the poems about pregnancy, birth, parenthood-the volume’s thematic focal point-are sombre. There’s no pastel shade in sight and all Hallmark card sentimentality has been excised.

Consider a picture of early pregnancy from The Proof: “The first sign is how you sicken me/bile rising in my throat/as I crunch the roasted wings/of ducks and chickens. How many birds consumed/to create your placenta alone?”

Yet within the volume-amidst the fatigue of parenthood and hand-wringing worry of someone familiar with daily headlines-there’s hopefulness and a few splashes of joy and contentment.

It is best exemplified by lines in Love’s First Decade (dedicated to Isabelle, Rose’s long-term partner): “Now/we are sensible enough, when we meet in the hallway/after settling him down for sleep, folding/the tiny socks, setting aside/the unmatched/to open our arms to each other/needing neither music nor sequins to dance.”

There’s the occasional burst of humour, too. The New GRE proposes a timely queer update to an exam often required for admittance to graduate school: “Sally and Liz were lovers for seven years. Sally’s new lover, Kiera, is throwing a potluck. Liz is coming with Anne, the woman she left Sally for. Anne’s ex, Samara, will also be coming. Samara is having a secret affair with Kiera. Samara’s lover, Beth, remains bitter over her breakup with Anne; she will attend with Ashley. How must Kiera seat everyone so that none of the women leave the potluck in tears?”

As the above sampling demonstrates, Rose does not hesitate to fluctuate between extremes in her poetry, investigating the mundane and particular (as a harried lesbian mother, for instance) as well as the lofty (musing on mortality, human nature and spirituality).

Many of the poems ponder human universals insofar as they wrestle with ideas that transcend categories like female, Canadian, lesbian or Caucasian. When asked about her stance on the tired question, “Are you a lesbian poet or a poet who happens to be lesbian?” Rose says that it is not as simple as that either/or would suggest.

“In my daily life, I’m never not an out lesbian, whether I’m dealing with a kindergarten teacher or speaking in a classroom. It’s just there, like being female, and that colours my experience, of course.”

She adds: “That said, I don’t feel that as a writer I am interested in addressing only one specific group or speaking about just one part of myself to the exclusion of others.”

A public identity is complicated, she acknowledges, recalling both a reviewer of her last book who complained about her dragging out her queer sex life when no one wants to see it and a (discarded) plan by her former publisher to market the book to lesbians by having an image of a breast on the cover.

“I want to write what I want to write,” she says with finality. “I want to speak to the whole world based on my particulars. And I don’t want to be relegated to a sideline or marginalized as only this or that.

“I always insist that I’m going to be telling my own story.”

As for her experience of parenting as a lesbian, she says that for better or worse “all the clich├ęs [about its joys and pains] are true.”

It has been broadening as well, she notes, because her social network has expanded to envelop parents in general, the majority of whom are not lesbian. “We have the same commonality and so can speak the same language,” she says.

“It’s hard but wonderful, and I’m so glad to be doing it all with another woman; that’s a gift,” she adds.

There’s no shortage of projects in Rose’s immediate future. She’s already well underway with a short story collection. And between diaper changes and treks to schools, her childhood-featuring draft-dodging parents and communes-promises to transform into a fascinating memoir.