Thursday, May 9, 2013



Edge Effects by Jan Conn
(Brick Books, London, Ontario 2012)

A new book by Jan Conn is always cause for celebration and this one is no exception. Edge Effects is her eighth collection and, as the title suggests, the poems in this volume explore themes on the perimeter.

The jacket design, which is by the New-York based artist Suzanne Hicks, provides a striking cover image which is in keeping with the content.  Some notes accompany the poems at the end.

In common with her previous volume, Botero’s Beautiful Horses, many poems are influenced by the visual arts. The dreamlike quality of several of the poems in this collection take their cue from the Edinburgh-born artist, Peter Doig whose abstract landscapes and unusual colour combinations lend a particular magic realist stance to her work.  The way Doig depicts scenes from unexpected angles mirrors Conn’s own method of working and the fact that some of Doig’s works are based on found photographs and postcards parallels Conn’s use of disparate images to create an emergent picture. Her poems are embroidered with layers of imagery, scientific terminology and observations drawn from the natural world. 

In addition to Doig, Conn also uses as a point of reference the works of Paul Klee; the Haitian-born American painter and sculptor of magical realism, Edouard Duval Carrié and the Mexican graphic artist Francisco Toledo.  Literary allusions and musical references also inform these poems. Some of the poem titles, for example,  are taken from phrases that appear in the poems of C.D. Wright. There are references to the opera house in Manaus, the celebrated Cuban singer and musician, Ibrahim Ferrer, and a Los Angeles-based Cambodian-American rock band.

The poems in this collection are divided into five sections whose titles bear within them the theme of being out on the periphery and of travelling into the unknown.  Each section contains between seven and fifteen poems.

In the opening poem, Space is a Temporal Concept, the reader is plunged headlong into a heady mix of scenes which conjure up the notion of fate determined by chance, the sense that we are all on a journey, that our long migration is toward magnetic north, that time is determined by a two-ton Aztec calendar and the possibility that we could be in several different countries at once. There are snails, crumbling temples, the goddess Diana, a pastry chef and a carnival atmosphere… the whole effect is one of looking at a very busy scene through a wide-angle lens and picking out specific images as they merge into the bigger picture. Near the close, the principal actors  seem to be called to a garden of heavenly delights featuring fountains of clean, aerated water, ice-cream and marshmallows:

…..the homeless are with us. Absent
            loved ones join us, my father included,
and all the emotional debris of a lifetime hovers overhead,
            flashing and rotating in a vast vertical column,
as eager to befriend us as a lost puppy.

Conn’s poems are frequently busy.  They are colourful and vibrant and they are pieces in which all the senses are brought into play. With so many images and references contained within them,  there is always something new and exciting to be discovered in any subsequent reading.

The poems in the second section contain some unforgettable scenes. In Tomorrow’s Bright White Light there is the cameo of the stripper in the frost-filled fields. The poem is rich in all sorts of allusions - the word “stripper” when linked to the title calls to mind the bright glow of strip lighting and when it is linked to the fields, it calls to mind the practice of strip-cropping. The stripper has infected the landscape - she kills it in the cold light of day and, at the same time, is herself being reclaimed by nature:

….At rest among the bloodroot, she admires
the only thing in view - her
unencumbered arm, now a queer, cold tone
of green, as though reflecting conifers
and spirits intermingled. The other arm, encased
in leather, triggers vivid memories of the
Superior Glove Factory.
She’ll die alone,
the residue of a photograph. At her side
is a pile of dusky plums, plundered by wasps.

The colours in this poem are particularly interesting - the bright white light and the frost-filled fields are set against the red rootstock and red sap of the bloodroot and then the red plums, redolent of blood. The last image, sometimes seen in a still life, is a sure symbol of life’s transience, of death and decay.

Close to Ghosts conjures up another vivid, incongruous scene: that of a supermodel loitering in a graveyard. It is eerie and full of atmosphere:

One early killing frost has followed another.
Pumpkins glow in the field like planets
of a brand new solar system.
The void that surrounds them seeps inside her head.

At the same time, Conn injects a lot of humour into the poem which gives it an even quirkier twist.

Marilyn Monroe: Andy Warhol: Marilyn Monroe is another poem with powerful imagery. The repetition of Marilyn Monroe in the title is, of course, a reminder of Andy Warhol’s repetitive images of Marilyn on canvas. Again, there is a lot of humour in this piece -

Please speak up, Miss M, he implores.
She clamps her lips shut,
concealing her ivories, false
from bottom to top.

and then there is the reference to that iconic moment when she stood over the air vent from the subway and let her skirt ride up on a cushion of air for all the world to see.

In the fourth section of the book, I must single out the poem called Unquantifiable. It is a sensitive portrait of a homeless man living in a cardboard box under a railway bridge. It is a poem full of compassion. At the centre of it all there are lines which ache with the sadness of something that is utterly unattainable and beyond his grasp:

Flecks of memory whirl across his mind
competing with a diorama in which he peers at a train
racing overhead in early summer.

In the final section, the boundaries contained in the book’s title are more closely defined. In The Present is Elusive  Conn tells us that the boundaries are “fissured” and that she prefers to live “in the cracks of events” -

Just this morning I might have leapt out of bed
for the last time as a pin-up girl.

With one good eye and one that sees the devil,
my foundation is blurry.

With Conn, you can be sure that the word “foundation” here can be taken to mean more than just a base for facial make-up…it is the groundwork or basis of everything. It is almost as if she lives every word before using it.

Other poems in this collection are set in Mexico, Brazil, America and Canada. Sometimes the focus is on a particular individual, at other times it is on humanity as a whole. All inhabit imagined worlds with landscapes that hover between one state and another; vistas that teeter on the brink.

Science may be an exact art but it is also one in which the ability to make unlikely connections can lead to the greatest of discoveries. Conn, who is a scientist by profession, demonstrates this ability time and again through the medium of her poetry. She is a writer who is not afraid to think out of the box. In doing so, she pulls together the most extraordinary, disparate elements to create an exciting and unified landscape. She stretches the imagination of the reader and opens up new and exciting worlds.

Conn dares to be different and she does it with confidence and panache. Reading her work is an exhilarating and unforgettable experience.


Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and poet living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His first full-length collection of poems, Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey was published by Littoral Press in 2010 and a selection of his Latin American poems, Librettos for the Black Madonna, was published by White Adder Press in 2011.

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