Review of Calm Things

Here is my review of Shawna Lemay’s Calm Things, originally posted at Prairie Fire.

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Last week I attended a talk by Merilyn Simonds at my local library. As soon as she had finished speaking, Merilyn came over to me, smiling like a person who wants to share a delicious secret. “I’m reading the most wonderful book,” she said. “You’ve got to get a copy. It’s called Calm Things. The author is Shawna Lemay.”

I knew Shawna Lemay’s poetry – she has published five books – and I had visited her blog. Even if it had held no other interest I’d have loved for that blog for its name alone Capacious Hold-All – a phrase of Virigina Woolf’s; applied to a blog it suggested an author with a sense of humour in addition to a well-stocked mind. Calm Things is Lemay’s first book of essays.

In part a consideration of the mysterious life of objects, in part a meditation on the art of still life, in part a love song to her husband, visual artist Robert Lemay, and in part a reflection on the craft of poetry, this is a book in the tradition of Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne. A writer looks deeply at paintings, and in the exercise of her deep attention, she learns and teaches as much about the art of writing as she does about the art of painting. It is a book about one art form that guides a reader towards a deeper understanding of all art forms. It is a book that both embodies and instructs us on the need for, and place of, loving attention and receptivity in our over-crowded, jangling lives.

Structurally, each paragraph works like a painting. You could, if you wanted, read each one in isolation, like a lyric poem. In some, quotations by various authors are yoked together with Lemay’s observations in what may seem to be a “natural” arrangement but on second thought appears to be an odd or arbitrary grouping. As a reader, you are forced to look again, to look beneath the surface of the prose. What is going on here? The writing, clear and luminous as it is, slows you down. It stops time. Just like a still life.

The space between paragraphs similarly functions to slow a reader to the pace of contemplation. It works the way the space between stanzas in a poem works, or the space between paintings in a gallery. It gives breathing room, invites a pause, encourages reflection and thought. Each essay stands on its own in the same way. You can dwell within it.

Yet, although Lemay says she is content to stand “outside narrative,” a narrative of sorts does undergird the essays. In the first, we accompany Shawna as she looks at Rob’s paintings for the first time, and we see the Lemays on their Italian honeymoon; by the end, the two have married, set up house and garden in a suburb of Edmonton, worked side-by-side and together for years, become parents; they have endured domestic worries and enjoyed domestic bliss. As readers, we get all this in glimpses, in between our moments of contemplation. Like the bee that “falls in love” with Rob’s painted lilacs during an exhibition of his work, we come nose to nose with an image of the real but aren’t allowed to drown in it, for too much self-revelation would take us away from the deep subject of the book. There is just enough personal history here to allow us to trust our narrator. More than that, we don’t need.

If you have ever been caught by the mystery of ordinary objects – their capacity to live on, even after we have died, their strange autonomy, their “thingness” as Heidegger would inelegantly have put it; if you have ever been curious about how a pair of artists can build a life together; if, as an artist, if you’ve ever longed for a quiet, intimate reflection of day-to-day life and work as you know it and live it, Calm Things will speak quietly, deeply, and insistently to you.

Thanks are due not only to Shawna, but also to Dawn Kresen of Palimpsest Press, for having the courage to publish such a still and meditative book.

After you have read Calm Things, check out Shawna’s second blog, also called Calm Things. There, she is able to display some of the images that are absent from the book itself and comment on more paintings that have moved her.

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