Jaguar Rain: the Margaret Mee Poems
By Jan Conn
Reviewed by Ian LeTourneau
Jaguar Rain: the Margaret Mee Poems, Jan Conn’s sixth book, displays a dazzling amount of passion for its subject, the life and work of Margaret Mee, who, according to a short biographical note at the back of the book, was “an extraordinarily gifted painter, naturalist and explorer.” The poems unfold over 14 journeys that Mee made into the Amazon, locating rare orchids and bromeliads and documenting them through painting. Reading Jaguar Rain is like reading a biography in verse: there is an overarching narrative, plenty of footnotes, and even a bibliography for further reading; but what’s important in terms of poetry is that the poems stand on their own when removed from the context of the book. They are lyrical, unsentimental, and tightly written. And I would hasten to add, Brick Books has done a lovely job packaging Conn’s passion. In what is undoubtedly one of the nicest designs I’ve seen from Brick yet, Jaguar Rain features a deep green cover which borders one of Mee’s striking paintings of pink flowers emerging from a lush rainforest setting.
Basing a book of poems on a notable person’s life—either based on a real person or a fictional character—is nothing new, especially in Canadian poetry. Gwendolyn MacEwan’s The T.E. Lawrence Poems, and Kate Braid’s To This Cedar Fountain, a book based on the life of Emily Carr, are the first few that leap to mind. And many fictional characters get the treatment, too: Kevin Irie’s Angel Blood: The Tess Poems, bases his poems on the heroine from Thomas Hardy’s novel, Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Sharon McCartney does a polyphonic take on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in Karenin Sings the Blues. And there are many, many more. Since the poetry biopic is a well-established Canlit sub-genre, something pretty significant is needed nowadays to distinguish a new entry into the fray. So what distinguishes Jaguar Rain?
Well, unlike the central figures of the aforementioned books, Margaret Mee is little known—and that is probably generous. This most certainly cannot be said of the above cast: Lawrence is legendary, Carr is unknown only to those who live in a cave, and the characters of Hardy and Tolstoy endure in our imaginations. So, yes, Mee is unknown to most readers, but to recast the question more properly, is Mee worth knowing? And why? What’s so important about her life and what can be applicable to our own in the 21st century?
The first answer comes by way of literary theory. I can hear the collected groans now, but the theory to which I’m referring is not like all those theories that are hyperaware of language, reducing literary discourse to a word game. No, I’m talking about a relatively new and presently quite fashionable theory in academic circles: ecocriticism. Ecocriticism, simply put, is the study of the relationship between literature and the environment. (And I must confess that my MA thesis examined Don McKay’s poetry using this focus, and thus my familiarity.) Faced with environmental crises, so the argument goes, nature poetry and any literature with even the remotest link to the natural world, must undergo a new evaluation in the face of new, stark realities such as global warming, increasingly freaky weather patterns, and the threat of global pandemics. One of the areas many of these ecocritics focus on is interconnectedness, particularly between the human and the non-human, and between the ecosystems in which we live. Followed to its conclusion, ecocriticism’s raison d’etre is to foster respect for the environment once the realization, pointed out by the critics, sets in that everything is connected. For instance, if we destroy the rainforest, we imperil our own survival.
Conn’s poetry seems to be aware of this, perhaps not consciously, but certainly aware. She writes in Mee’s biographical note found at the back of the book that
“[s]he was the first botanical artist to begin to put exuberant background details into her formal paintings. These serve as a reminder that whole ecosystems give rise to such diversity, species richness, and the critical need to preserve this extraordinary heritage.”
So artistically, we might expect Conn to provide lots of details in her poems—to fill in the background as it were, and employ lots of striking metaphors, that greatest of literary devices, whose sole purpose is to make connections between dissimilar things.
And we do. For example, look at the painstaking effort to account for the entire rainforest landscape, when the object of true interest is a bromeliad, in “AKA Heaven”:
The troubled moon stutters up behind the trees, slender and antiseptic
as though fighting a chronic disease. Long after the insects cease
rasping and creaking, the phallic bract of a bromeliad
shyly opens from its prickly base, vermillion and magenta
lighting the moist rainforest dark.
The passage sings with the internal rhyme, consonance, and assonance of the varied things that make up the rainforest. But notice too, how metaphorically anthropomorphized the moon has become, “antiseptic / as though fighting a chronic disease.” One thing metaphors do because they operate in language, a human construct, is to relate things in human terms. What I mean is, whatever we attempt to describe, there will always be an element of our human perception in play. More skillful poets such as Conn stretch our imagination, forcing us to make connections between the human and non-human world. It isn’t as obvious as those advertisements cautioning against high cholesterol where a rhinoceros lurks around the corner, but art is usually more subtle.
And so effective are Conn’s poetic devices that it is a pity when she relies on gimmicks from time to time. In “Gustavia augusta” she employs a little-used resource of typography, the superscript, to help describe a particular colour:
Blossoms, at my base, oyster-shell white then
towards the tip, pink, pinker, pinkest!
If white is all colours, then pink
is white squeezed to its edges,
whitecubed, without the straitjacket.
The superscript is a bit gimmicky, but the point is well taken: how do we name something for which we previously have no name? Here Conn is pushing language to name things, without names, by using the lexicographical resources of colour already at hand and ordering them in a new combination to pinpoint the new colour in front of the speaker exactly. The gimmick here might be too much for some; for others, it might lie just on this side of acceptable. Regardless, with the tight metaphor of the straightjacket, it is memorable.
But, even more gimmicky is “Moon with Ant,” a poem Conn writes in the language of the Rikbaksa people, an Amazonian tribe, and translates into English on the same page. I’m not sure if she gains anything by this. Intellectually, I can understand that this gesture toes the thematic line of preservation, and increases the allure of exotic things. I give her credit for trying, but perhaps Conn would have done better to have related a folk tale or some small part of their mythology in the original language and given us a translation of that if she felt the need to translate. Elsewhere, Conn records the customs of the people of differing tribes, such as in “The Monkey-Skin Bracelet and I,” where
[w]e are watching the preparation of plantain soup.
Add the ashes of the chieftain’s wife,
shavings of moonlight, a pinch of that uranium rain,
night perfume: her soul will not come back.
This is far more interesting because it promotes cultural learning, prompts questions in the curious mind and ultimately stokes our empathy, all things that the translation fails to do. Although, I for one would be interested to read of Conn’s experience in the Amazon and learn more about the Rikbaksa if she were to write a non-fiction account.
Most importantly, however, for the success of Jaguar Rain, is that the poetry has flashes of brilliance. There are places where the diction and the syntax conjure the scene almost as clearly as Mee’s gouache. Take this excerpt from “Serra do Curicuriari” for example:
From the mist emerges a flaming orange
cock-of-the-rock. We eye each other.
Plummeting like a flare dropped he dives
into the black heart of the river.
The ineffable experience of nature put into words here reminds me of Alden Nowlan’s bull moose or Ted Hughes’ roe deer. Conn brilliantly uses language, inverting natural word order, to convey the sense of what she is describing. Like any skilled artist, Conn knows that to carry any emotional impact, the poem has to work on many levels. For English speakers, “a dropped flare” might sound more natural, but by rearranging the phrase to read “a flare dropped” we get the added aural sense of dropping, the plosive ending of “dropped” more abrupt and suggestive of something falling and landing than ending with “flare” would have been. Conn understands that language is like a flare, not only an illuminating device, but something perhaps filled with meaningful, life-saving potential.
There are times, however, that Conn doesn’t push language far enough. For instance, in “Rio Guamá”: “a shroud envelops / the world, the river empties itself of images.” “Shroud” verges on cliché, leaving as much of an impression on the memory as a feather does on concrete. And the second part—“the river empties itself of images”—seems lazy, as if it was put down hastily, was an image meant to be returned for sharpening, but was missed in the revision stages. Of course, that is just conjecture, but it was a hunch I couldn’t shake. Thankfully, more often than not, Conn’s verbal panache invests Mee’s life with importance, where we see the interconnections between all things, and become more empathetic, a trait that I think all good poetry—regardless of its form, subject, or intention—should strive to accomplish.
Which brings me back to my earlier question: is Margaret Mee worth knowing? I would say, yes.