Review of Landsdowne Poetry Prize Winning Comma by Jennifer Still

Award-winning poet Jennifer Still’s new collection, Comma, meditates on spaces, pauses, and commas in time. Comma is a field guide for taking a breath in the daily rush-hour of life and for finding the poem in the pauses of the day. The poetry collection serves as a map not just for deliberating in the fragmentation both of life and poetry but also for when we cannot locate ourselves.

The pattern of the words on the page, the spaces between them, slow down the trek of thoughts and serve as a compass. The book guides the reader via whispers and secrets and meditations and hums. Its needle points inward, yet not in a claustrophobic, self-indulgent, and binding way, but in self-reflection to inflate and lift the reader out of herself. To float.

The book itself is a secret whisper. A glimpse into different dimensions of language. It’s easy to imagine seeing the words dangling as a mobile or falling down as raindrops, seeing them in three dimensions rather than on the two of the page. Comma includes not only printed text artfully spaced on its pages but also handwritten words, reproductions of images, drawings, and typed fragments cut from paper and arranged on the page all from various sources noted at the end. Still cites the manuscript as a “silent collaboration with [her] brother’s handwritten field guide of prairie grasses, composed while he was in SICU and recovery at Winnipeg’s Health Science Centre” from a coma. The pages presenting visual content form an integral component of the composition. They catapult our imagination and slow time, allowing us to look deeper at the butterflies and the flowers integrated with blurred and erased words and to deliberate on what remains. Some of the words in the images disappear beyond legibility, yet this doesn’t diminish the impact, the message of the secret unknowable and fading of order and direction. In Comma, Still brings something novel to life and a birth, a conception, arises from the methods of erasure and disappearance. Through the fragments, thoughts patch together in a quilt of deep sadness, a stir of the evanescent condition of what it means to be human, a longing, a vulnerability, all the colors of humanity. Still includes photographs of her erasure work and experiments with needle and thread, sewing through the language. The invisible strand of the breath is what connects the piece together, creating a continuity among the white space on the pages.

Much of what Still investigates through stitches, the field guide from her brother, other sources, and turning inward is what lies underneath, the biomass, as her brother says when he awakens: everything underneath the forest that makes it thrive yet remains invisible. She uses poetry to resolve her “conflicting impulse to connect and hide.” The words and images on the page, the stillness, the quietness of the work belie the network and growth underneath. The book provides a haven, the not so elusive safety of the quote she includes from Rebecca Solnit to protect the “frail and vulnerable” and the “impractical and local and small.”

Our lives hold a secret, something incomplete that changes. Different shades of blue. In her book, Still shares the breath, the secrets, the nonverbal communication yet via the conduit of language. The language isn’t linear. The words turn inside out and backwards, invert, a topology of language all unto itself. It doesn’t follow rules. It’s saddening to think of how bound our lives have become to arbitrary rules. We often veer from our life’s intended path, deflecting and defecting from the original plan. None of us can imagine when we create our rules where we will land, what illnesses might befall us, and how the rules might break even when we follow them. We think in terms of logical conditions. If p then q. Jennifer Still contests the logic of language, which forms the mathematical basis for our thoughts. She challenges us to break free from our conventions that might be trapping us in some way and to learn to float. Contradictions arise as words scramble, she plays with words within words and words that sound alike. The poems blur the line between secrets and what is manifest, between the sadness that inhabits our identity and the joy of picking something apart and rearranging it and discovering something new, which we might do with our own lives as well as the words on her page. In her poems is a music composed of form as well as language counterpointed with the silences of the spaces interspersed with quotes and meditative prose picked up as pebbles along the path. None of us can anticipate either the comma or the crack. Neither did Still when her brother fell into the coma which prompted Comma.

There are so many ways to crack open and to shatter, despite one’s best efforts to stay intact and on course. Yet in Still’s Comma, a crack, like in the Leonard Cohen song, lets the light in. A detour is not the end. When we break, as the words do on Comma’s page, we can reform into something new and singular and poetic.

Reading Comma, we learn that if we turn upside down, the words we might utter from our own pain that sink and weigh, like the words in the book, float. The poetry offers a lens, a prism, through which we can distort the distorted. Restore ourselves to ourselves, perhaps, through a glimpse outside. Which we do by focusing inward.

Life is but a comma between birth and death, between being and not being. I hope to return to this book again and again when I need a pause, a breath, a restorative Comma.

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