Reading the poet Jeannine Savard’s latest collection My Hand upon Your Name (Red Hen Press, $12.95) is like entering a dream world. The poems are full of fantastical images, strange scenes and unexpected metaphors — a cat with a cloud in its belly, and a bishop imagining himself a woman. Many of the stories Savard tells are actually framed within the context of dreams or deep meditations, related sloyly and carefullyl. She writes with a painter’s delicacy but in three dimensions, elaborating on all the sensual aspects of her scenes, revolving around them with both mystical aloofness and motherly sensitivity.
Motherhood is one of Savard’s primary preoccupations. In “Visiting the Stone Mansion of a Dead Hindu Saint” and “Recurrent Dreams of Being a Mother,” she imagines having a child of her own. For another selection, “The Walking Mountain Meditation” she elegizes the suicide of the mother of a childhood friend. This latter poem is an ideal instance of Savard’s ability to blend dream and reality.
In this entry, Savard evokes life before the mother’s death as an idyllic existence, as distant and pure as a dream, a world in stark contrast to the harsh reality which succeeded it. It is a world she wants back. She writes: “I want to see once more/the bee on the lip of the white and red milk carton,/a pure balance of life in my hand,/ green and blue marbles/rolling into the cracks, into spring days/of the early 1960’s, more life/racing in space, and I’d like it all /to stop right there — not hear/the words ‘shot’ or ‘suicide’ attached/to your mother’s name.” This poem’s details are evocative — the fragile delicacy represented by the bee on the milk carton, the equilibrium signified by the marbles balanced in her hand — and the harsh reality of death bursts sharply through this world.
One of the epigrams which opens this collection is spoken by the Tibetan Buddhist master Dzogchen Ponlop. He observes, “Yesterday was a dream and today is also a dream. This is also a dream.” Here, even what is real is often depicted as surreal. Savard first envisions the reality of the mother’s death — “the impossible chaos / of bone and a phlegm-like pit of blood / you must have found on your hands” — and then changes it, reinvents the scene, takes control of the chaos by rewriting it — “Once, it was a bear trap. I wished she’d eaten off / her paw, limped a little, and returned to feed / her children.”
Savard’s great accomplishment in My Hand upon Your Name is her ability to redefine the world. Time d does not apply, since the past can be brought to the present, as can the future. Reading her poetry is much like entering a universe without laws in which we are free to float and observe, not bound by physical or mental restrictions. Her poems are odd and inviting, full of all the human emotions expected of the best poetry — sadness, love and passion — and yet magically surreal, mystical and charming in their strangeness.
As a poet, Savard’s voice is tender, and she approaches her readers with the same sensitivity that she does the stranger in “Slow Waves,” who falls asleep on her shoulder on a plane. She does not wake him; instead, she watches him, admires his humanity, and lets her presence comfort him. In the end, the man wakes and, although embarrassed at his own vulnerability, he has been changed nevertheless by her acceptance of his weakness. This is the effect My Hand upon Your Name has on us: It leads us, dreaming, onto weirdly beautiful grounds, letting us grow at ease there, then awakens us. Savard’s poems leave us staring and surprised. They leave us reconsidering reality, seeing things slightly differently, seeing things anew.
My Hand upon Your Name
Red Hen Press
March 1, 2005