Reviews of I, Nadja, and Other Poems
“Barefoot in the Margins”
Reviewed by Daniel Burgoyne in Canadian Literature
In the first trade collection of her poetry, I, Nadja, and Other Poems, Susan Elmslie revisits the woman at the heart of André Breton’s surrealist romance Nadja (1928) in order to question Breton’s appropriation of Nadja and his making of her into a symbol, a sphinx representing the enigma of woman. In her online essay “Trailing Nadja,” Elmslie clarifies her intent: “I knew that what I wanted to write was not just a personal projection of self onto my idea of Nadja, or essentially what I thought Breton had done.” Instead, Elmslie set out to blur Nadja’s voice with her own—“my purpose must be to let her voice meld with and challenge my own.” I find that this melding of voices pervades the collection as a whole, not only with Nadja but in ambiguity that crops up in poems like “George Sand’s Wardrobe,” where the voice begins ostensibly as Elmslie but shifts to become that of an unnamed Aurore Dupin. The choice of Sand seems appropriate to the tension between dramatic monologue and lyric that runs throughout the collection. Early seemingly confessional pieces, such as the “Seven Letters to My Mother,” assume a distinctly different cast after the historical and performative rigour of “I, Nadja,” and the meditation on sexual abuse in the fourth section, “The Hard Disciplines,” where Elmslie moves back and forth from personal experience to statistics that “clot the imagination”: “Two thirds of sexual assaults occur in a private home.” If the problem posed by Elmslie’s return to Breton’s Nadja is how to avoid simply re-appropriating and casting the woman in her own image, then the answer potentially emerges as a means to resist the sufficiency of the lyrical voice. And it is the tension in this resistance that I find most promising about these poems.
excerpted from George Elliott Clarke’s review in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, March 11, 2007
Female poets write of mystery of the feminine
Two poets help to usher in International Women’s Day: Susan Elmslie’s first, full-length poetry collection, I, Nadja and Other Poems (Brick, $18), and two chapbooks by Kathleen Judith James, a.k.a. Strong. The two poets nicely exemplify the vast range of women-written poetry in Canada. Elmslie’s debut is structured around Nadja — a real-life woman whose love affair with French modernist poet Andre Breton and later mental illness informed his surrealist novel, Nadja. For Breton, Nadja became a symbol of the mystery of the feminine and of human irrationality. For Elmslie, Nadja exemplifies the daring, risk-taking, loving woman who is then exploited and sacrificed by the male artist as his muse. Explaining the origin of the Nadja sequence of poems, Elmslie marvels “at the coincidence that Nadja’s letters became accessible to me just as neared the completion of my work, my search for her, begun ten years ago.” “I have been able to peer, sometimes of necessity through a magnifying glass, at jpegs of [auction] lot 2119, the twenty-seven letters Nadja wrote to André, pixels approximating the muted tones of the envelopes, even the creases in them, the blots in the ink, the increased pressure in the language. The voice that I had been imagining.” The title poem, “I, Nadja,” evinces Elmslie’s phenomenal gift for assuming a voice, a personae: “I … do swear I / never loved you, you thief / of tongues, self-important arriviste / bastard. / you entered me / like a café, proud of your mien, très artiste.” The nice mix of linguistic styles shadows surrealism, without becoming obscure. Elmslie is especially good at writing the unrhymed, narrative couplet: “we stood aside for someone to pass / and in that moment of moving closer to him [André] // so as not to brush up against someone else, I knew / I could forget myself.” … “For a few moments it was as if there were heavy curtains / around us, the world muffled. I looked at his face // for the first time then. When I picked up my glass / I had to use two hands. // I flicked my cigarette, the whole ember / split off. He was looking at my nails, // and then so did I. / What did I hope to happen? // He reminded me / of that young man I loved in Lille. // But even a glove on the street / can make you reach for it, thinking it’s your own.” But I, Nadjais full of good poems that give us a careful poet’s examination of life: “Felicity I read a stand of your hair; / A sudden star, it shot through papers, air. / Carefully from your poems I pulled this line, / Peerless alexandrine, sublime feminine rhyme.” Elmslie’s attentiveness to imagery and verbs (“The [pomegranate] juice barb— / wiring all the creases in our palms, dripping / towards the wrists”) reminds me of the strengths of Karen Solie and U. S. poet Sharon Olds. Elmslie is a poet who conducts an exquisite inquisition of stories and their inner emotional complexities.
excerpted from Bert Almon’s review in the Montreal Review of Books, fall & winter 2006/07
Innovation and renovation
Traditionally, first poetry collections are slim volumes, and so prematurely published that their authors later try to buy or steal all the surviving copies. Susan Elmslie, Anita Lahey and Thomas Heise have published substantial first books. Elmslie and Lahey have shown that formalism can thrive in Canada, while Heise, a recent immigrant to Montreal, writes from an avant garde position with mixed results. Elmslie’s I, Nadja uses forms like the glosa (which was more or less invented by P.K. Page), the sonnet, and the pantoum. The pantoum is a repetitive form adopted from Malayan poetics: the second and fourth line of each stanza form the first and third lines of the following stanza. Back in 1971, in a textbook called The Practice of Poetry, Robin Skelton observed that “there are very few pantoums in English.” But this exotic plant has spread successfully from the hothouses of poetry manuals and has naturalized in Canadian gardens. Elmslie uses the form in a long poem about life in the asylum where Nadja, the central figure in André Breton’s narrative of the same name, was eventually confined. The obsessive and repetitive nature of the poetic form mirrors the obsessive and repetitive routines of life in the sanitarium. The “I, Nadja” sequence is the core of the book. It explores the life of a mentally ill woman Breton met on a Paris street and had a brief affair with. Breton’s book, a key text in French Surrealism, is very troubling in the issues it raises about the exploitation of the voiceless in art. Breton’s account of the affair is known to be inaccurate and self-serving. Elmslie had carried out profound research on Nadja and on Breton’s circle, and she uses it to create a powerful portrait of the disturbed woman. Most of the poems are from Nadja’s point of view, but some are written from the standpoint of Breton and his associates. The sequence is deeply moving and the absolute formal mastery intensifies the effect.
The rest of the book is uneven. The confessional poems in the opening section are less interesting than the sections that follow. Elmslie is at her best imagining the lives of other people – George Sand, Marie Curie, Nadja – rather than in talking about mother-daughter relationships. Some of the later sequences – witty takes on school subjects like geometry, and a set on chairs designed by famous architects – show close observation but not much inwardness. However, “Four Postcards,” a glosa early in the book, cuts deep. The four stanzas of the poem, with their final lines repeated from the epigraph by Adrienne Rich, consider love in its absence. The salute to tradition in the poem gives it a special resonance: this glosa is based on Rich’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” which was itself inspired by John Donne’s great work with the same title. Elmslie is at home with tradition and willing to add to it.
excerpted from Bill Roberston’s review in The StarPhoenix, Sasktatoon, December 2, 2006
MONTREAL POET Susan Elmslie, originally from Brampton, Ont., makes her debut with I, Nadja, and Other Poems, a collection that takes its title from a provincial girl named Léona who ran away to Paris in the 1920s to become Nadja, muse to surrealist poet André Breton.
Trouble is, and what makes Leona’s story universal, is that Breton finished with her and left her. Nadja/Léona went mad with grief and anxiety and ended up in one mental institution, and then another near home, where she soon after died, leaving a young daughter. Elmslie, with help from Breton’s book Nadja, along with Nadja’s letters and her own scouting of the lovers’ haunts, invents Nadja’s meetings with Breton and his coterie, her cries and responses, her angry repudiations, her final meeting with her daughter. This last poem is tenderly poignant, while the short “I Had No Little Love for You. It Spoke” is brilliant. This section in a large collection is emblematic of the way many of the poems in the book appear to view the lives of women: as a knife-edge walk between the safely loved and appreciated on the one side and the dangerous on the other, with the erotic running between the two. Bookended by loving poems to parents and girlfriends and by somewhat mawkish closing poems to good men, the heart of the collection records the possibility of breast cancer and an apology to a daughter for her “ferocity of hunger.” There’s the horrible “If There’s a Woman on the Street,” about a man who went hunting for a woman to rape and kill, the speaker’s own experience with an assault in “Geometry Lesson” and a close escape in “Physics: After the Genesis Concert, 1982,” and the grim catalogue of “Statistics” and “Calculus,” both to do with violence against women. Amidst these are love poems such as “Grand Café de la Paix” and “Somehow over time Severn Bridge.” There are also the many erotic possibilities of the trench coat and various famous chair designs right in there with clothing accessories one can use to beat a person and cover the evidence. Elmslie, through the life and death of Nadja and through her look at clothing and furniture, pays close attention to those forces that look with love, and often with sinister intent, at the lives of girls and women.
excerpted from rob mclennan’s review, posted on his blog, Thursday, August 03, 2006:
http://www.robmclennan.blogspot.com/2006_08_01_robmclennan_archive.html It was in 1996 when I first read the poems of Montreal writer Susan Elmslie, from her award-winning chapbook When Your Body Takes to Trembling (Windsor ON: Cranberry Tree Press, 1996), entering into poems as clear and deliberate as cut glass. Since then, her writing has appeared in numerous places, including the anthologies In Fine Form: The Anthology of Canadian Form Poetry (Vancouver BC: Polestar, 2005), evergreen: six new poets (Windsor ON: Black Moss Press, 2003), YOU & YOUR BRIGHT IDEAS: NEW MONTREAL WRITING (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 2001), as well as a chapbook with above/ground press, I, Nadja (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2000), and finally in her first trade collection, I, Nadja, and Other Poems (London ON: Brick Books, 2006). Built in four separate sections, the title section of her new collection centres around André Breton’s surrealist muse Nadja, writing the real woman that Breton himself never bothered to really know, and finally abandoned. As she writes in her “Dedication” at the beginning of the “I, Nadja” section [a longer version appears at Poetics.ca]: “I have to wonder at the irony that Breton ended up with an alley named after him here. The general public might not know that his surrealist muse Nadja was actually confined behind these walls in March 1927 (when the buds on the magnolia trees, on the green outside the frame, were just splitting their seams) before being moved to another hospital and, sometime later, to yet another nearer her family in Lille, where she died. No street bears her real or adopted name. Until now, just a book, his. Which she likely never read” (p 67). Nadja and Breton aren’t the only references made here; in sections titled “Feminine Rhyme,” “History Repeats,” “I, Nadja,” “The Hard Disciplines” and “Equipment for Living,” Elmslie writes of Marie Curie and George Sand, elements of Paris (unrelated to Nadja and Breton), various of the sciences in the fourth section, and a final section on more tangible things such as chairs, trench coats and apartments. This is a large poetry collection, at over one hundred and forty pages, and I find it interesting that poetry collections seem to be getting larger over the past few years. Most of the time it isn’t necessary, and a matter of not enough edits, but I can’t imagine a single thing to improve this first collection by Susan Elmslie; perhaps it’s simply knowing how long the process of this book has taken, and knowing how long it might take before we see a second. Elmslie’s poems are precise and deliberate, but still hold a passion […], a strain of passion turning slowly into grief. These poems hit hard at the heart first like a virus, spreading quickly into the other parts of the body. There is a muted spontaneity to Elmslie’s poems, a flow that works both confidence and uncertainty, writing out the end of poems that twist when they need, and continue when they need, making many of these pieces better poems than even she might be aware of. In various poems, there are apologies made, to fathers and mothers and already her new daughter; apologies made to everyone but her husband, Wes. This is a remarkable first collection from a poet many of us have been waiting on for years, and a book not easily absorbed as a whole, but poems that very quickly and immediately strike the reader in the softer places.