The Poison Colour. Maureen Hynes. (poetry) Pedlar Press. 95 pages.
The mind is like a richly woven tapestry in which the colors
are distilled from the experiences of the senses, and the
design drawn from the convolutions of the intellect.
I used to run a reading series in Sarnia, Ontario, and I invited Maureen Hynes to be a reader in October 2016. During that visit, she told me a story about the way this book was titled, saying her manuscript had suggested something else but the press editor chose this one. I only wish the editor had suggested a shift in order for the poems, as well, placing The Poison Colour closer to the beginning of the book. I believe this title poem sets the tone for reading the book, giving the reader a clue for the context of most of these pieces.
As a person, Maureen Hynes is a kind and astute woman, who is generous with her knowledge, as all of her poems attest. Reading her book is like taking a journey around the globe with her, seeing exotic and humble places through her eyes (Plaza de Puerto de Moros, Kindly Stops, Quipu). Yet, the idea that the use of a certain colour in Mexican or French tapestries…
makes the rest of the group brighten[.]
The colour so drab it intensifies
the merriment in all the others,
their alacrity and charm.
…is spelled out in the title poem to reveal Hynes as a poet who is so intense and so vulnerable that she feels compelled to ask:
Is it me?
Take five pretty colours,
like five slender sisters, and add a sixth,
the less prickly one who makes the others
sweet and tractable,
who forces their brilliance and grace.
(The Poison Colour)
This poem explains the poison colour is one that strikes up high contrasts because it is not harmonious with the others.
In this way, Hynes parallels her personal vulnerabilities, and her persistent self-reflection, to the role of the poison colour in those tapestries. This poem highlights a collection that offers strong insights into the human efforts, globally, to find purpose and meaning, as Hynes also looks for deeper meaning in the artifacts she observes, the paintings and museum objects she sees, and the relationship they have to their makers.
Hynes is both a traveller and an author who likes to write about the various places she has visited (Cueva De Pileta, Prey). Her poems are often like a portal to a different time and place.
Many chambers, steep passageways, drapes of calcium carbonate dyed
with copper, purple with magnesium oxide, five storeys high. Chimineas,
hearths with ventilation upward to the open air, black with
Everywhere, drip of stalactites, slow accretion of stalagmites, some
broken by terremotos.
Five thousand bats: the single ring of a cell phone will wing them outside.
Their guano drew the olive farmer inside – his grandson guides us.
(Cueva de Pileta)
She is also someone who delights in visiting art galleries and museums, frequently sharing her reflections about what she has witnessed (Jewel Beetle Dress, Redhead, Tarpaulin, Scorched Dress). In fact, she often examines the oddity of what is preserved in museums or in books that the original owners would (or did) put in the trash.
Like X-ray prints of bodies on pavement,
the charred silhouettes on the gallery wall.
A Veronica’s veil lifted away, portrait
of clothes’ endurance, the lightness of all.
The white glove ceremony – unwrapping
and rewrapping in acid-free paper,
More unusual for a book of poems, perhaps, she also records a response to the work of other authors she has read (Poem Called ‘Grateful’, après vous, On Reading Lorca’s ‘Poet in New York’, Rain-Soaked Poem). The result is that one gains a clear idea of Hynes the poet thinking, responding, and loving.
Hynes is a highly relatable poet and she knows just what to say to introduce each poem at a live reading, as if she is cracking a nut and offering it to her audience. She uses language beautifully and portrays what I can only call her reverie for nature (Listening to the Grass, Rattle, Silver Leaf).
Now you hear the argument
among water, soil, chepica grass:
commotion of pale shoots as they dip
their new quills into Neruda’s green ink,
deepen their hue and swarm ahead
(Listening to the Grass)
Yet, while she is drawn to old architecture, she suggests the renaming and repurposing of buildings and places where one has been is like memory’s intrusion on the present or the past’s insertion into us (These Persons, Stone Sonnet).
Broad boulevards now tawdry and commercial
stretch back two hundred years,
homes to doctors and merchants
and clergymen. The same cathedral bells
chime the hours, quarter, half and full.
How long does it take a city
to form us, fill us
with longings shaped before we were born?
Indeed, she connects so deeply with the inner being of her readers that she seems to have a psychic ability to portray the past.
… when I pass the
Church whose Depression era faithful occupied
homes in defence of those evicted, when I search
for old names carved into stonework
or when the peepshow of the past reveals a woman
in high heels dashing into a bank that was once
the Victory Burlesque, all these sites
the city has buried or bricked over or overlooked,
then I am thinking Olsen’s thought,
My problem is to make you believe these persons existed
For the most part, the entities in her poems live where we can see them, or imagine them, yet, for myself several poems were too privately referenced and, despite the power in her imagery, her message was lost. This should not keep anyone from enjoying the richness in this book, however.
Hynes poetic reflections on eras gone past sparks them to life for moments, within the shelter of her poems, making them seem a portal to distant times and places (These Persons, Valparaiso, Stone Sonnet). She can paint an eerie and suggestive word picture of a cormorant nesting in the hallway disguised as a telephone (Cormorant Elegy) or create a “basket of sound” using words to illustrate the sound of a Redhead Duck (Redhead). She can draw you close enough to sense the power of the drug used during her recovery from surgery:
The middle of the night.
I can bear it, you tell the nurse.
but I just can’t stop crying. Push
The pain pump’s middle button.
The apparatus clicks and clacks –
someone inside, very old and expert, is preparing
your dose, cutting slivers from a ball
of black opium. The sound of his scalpel
slicing against a porcelain plate.
In the middle of the night
you count: 66 slices.
Always, Hynes touches on the colour of things as if the emotions were a box of watercolours, one colour for humour, another for vulnerabilities, another for the test of patience as she deals with her mother’s decline.
My mother had waded well out into dementia,
let’s say up to her hips, maybe even to her waist.
her sister similarly afflicted, though maybe just
ankle deep. They were both heading for the island
(Further and Further West)
Hynes comments – over and over again, on her trips to museums and artist exhibitions and the homes where famous people once lived – that she wishes she could touch what she sees but it is not allowed. Ironically, in the beautiful lines of her poetry, Hynes makes you feel that you are almost present with her at those sites, that you could also touch what she is referencing – if you were allowed.
About the Reviewer
Sharon Berg writes poetry, story, reviews, and non-fiction that relates to Indigenous history and education in Canada. Her work has been published in periodicals across Canada, in the USA, the UK, The Netherlands, and Australia. She is the editor for Big Pond Rumours International Literary E-Zine http://www.big-pond-rumours.com/ and her blog collects links to her book reviews: https://sharonbergblog.wordpress.com/