Thursday, November 16, 2006

a brief brief note on the poems of Karen Massey

Considering how long she received her M.A. in English Literature (Creative Writing) from Concordia University (alongside writers David McGimpsey and April Bulmer, each of whom have at least three or four trade books so far), some of us have spent years waiting for Ottawa poet Karen Massey to have that first trade poetry collection. The author of the chapbook Bullet (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2000), her work has appeared in the anthologies The Windhorse Reader: Best Poems of 1993 (Samurai Press, 1994), Strong Winds (Fredericton NB: Broken Jaw Press, 1997), Written in the Skin (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 1998), Vintage 97/98 (Kingston ON: Quarry Press, 1999), Shadowy Technicians: New Ottawa Poets (Fredericton NB: cauldron books / Broken Jaw Press, 2000), various Canadian publications such as the online pdf Ottawa poetry journal ottawater, and in the new anthology Decalogue: ten Ottawa poets (Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2006). Her work has also won national and local prizes including the Joker is Wild and the late Jane Jordan Poetry Competition (formerly run by The TREE Reading Series). An Ottawa resident since 1990, according to her bio, "She and her partner live in Ottawa, where they work as artisans while parenting their two dynamic young sons, who were born at home on Thursdays, 21 months apart."

Not a Sonnet

Where are they now, young bodies on the streetcar
heading out for food after hours and hours
building and unbuilding one another’s bodies,
glimpsing the soul’s secret sorrow and passion.
Good night, here comes the snow,
there’s no TV here, just a stereo and a cat or two
and a pile of blankets on what we’ve deemed a bed,
though we never sleep, we’re so young and our bodies feel
as if we’re running out of time and this timelessness
is all we’ve been made for. It’s always night here,
stars work just for us, seasons pull in and out of months;
spring outside now, kids noisy in the school playground,
pushing bodies through the air-- they don’t even know yet
what they’ve been brought here to do (Decalogue: ten Ottawa poets)

Massey's poems work themselves a lyrical and even formal stride through what should be straightforward, but her poems still manage to sidestep expectation, working themselves alternately in soft and subtle directions. Karen Massey is one of but a few poets I know in various parts of the country (including Vancouver's Brian Burke) who easily have the work for a collection or two, but have somehow never managed it. I know she's been building her way up to a collection for a number of years; will next year finally be that year?

For the Stones In her Pockets

This is death, death, death she noted in the margin
of her mind; when illusion fails.
— Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts

fragile words are the woman
delicate inside her body
holding its secret captive over fifty years
filling her head with the wet sand of madness
she cannot climb out of its night
will not turn down the thick blankets of grief

like thrush eggs smooth inside her dress pockets
she carries brown speckled stones
to counteract the water's buoyancy
the stones are growing
are swelling with her life's heaviness
soon they burst the pocket seams
of her underwater skin

Virginia drowning off-stage like Ophelia
the silent weight of stone
drawing her down to muddy death
through decades of brilliant testimony
caught fluttering in pages

giant stones deliver her (Shadowy Technicians: New Ottawa Poets)

Karen Massey will be reading on Thursday, December 14, 2006 at 7pm at the Ottawa Art Gallery as part of the launch of the anthology Decalogue: ten Ottawa poets (Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2006). For more information, check out or