Arc of Light

Review by Wendy Donawa

In this loving and light-filled elegy to her mother, Saltspring Island poet Lorraine Gane evokes a painful stage that mid-life children of ailing parents will recognize.  It is a complex grief, letting go of parents as protectors, moving into acceptance of inevitable loss, and of their own place, parentless, now on the front lines of mortality.

The first few poems sketch the early life of Gane’s mother. Coming from Poland as a five-year-old, she settles into a working class life of hard work and an early marriage with “hopes that blossomed and withered”. But she is also energetic, no-nonsense, and a good protector of her children in a wild storm that thunders and floods as she cranks up the solar radio: “here we are safe in the dark”.  Unsentimental and with wry humour, years later the poet recalls bringing her mother home after a seven-course wedding dinner, which she throws up, in the bushes, in a kitchen pail, in the bathroom, until after midnight.

The remaining poems chart the mother’s decline, and the narrator’s difficult acceptance of that journey.  The mother’s dreams fill with omens; the daughter wonders, “What can you say to the voice of death?” The evanescent beauty of a heron blazing into the sun vanishes; mother and daughter speak of death as the day “unfolds into /the deep hues of evenings, our breath/ taking us there”. A crescendo of unfortunate events follows: falls and injuries, a stroke.

Yet the beauty of the natural world is ever present; doubtless Saltspring’s stunning landscapes assist Gane’s braiding of light and dark, life and death. Waiting for daybreak to leave for the hospital, she watches winter sun “lift its bright head over/the edge of trees and snow-covered houses/flooding the ravine and its dark water /below with golden light.” Finally leaving the hospital, the indomitable mother finds “the dazzling world once again/full of possibility.”

But her journey ends as it must; her last breaths “the wings of small birds/fluttering in the depths of her heart/as though seeking their release.” The grieving daughter is left with memories, souvenirs, cabbage roll recipes, and the scent of long-dead bedside roses.  Painful separation for the bereaved, “half in this world, half in the other.” She finds and buries a dead bird, with a blessing “as a familiar ache in my heart opens”, but days later, birdsong “rings through the forest, the song clear and boundless.” She finds a fawn’s body, drowned in a pool, and “the black blossom of another death opened through/my body”, but then sees “the water’s dark glass” reflecting a sky “lit with iridescent blues”.

The final poem finds her tranquil and accepting, comforted by the image of a luminous white arc floating over her mother’s body, “all softness and light.”

Wendy Donawa is the author of Thin Air of the Knowable


Beauty and Beyond: Songs of Small Mercies, reviewed by Tanya Lester in Prairie Fire, February, 2013