rev. of Cathedral of the North by Connie Voisine

Issue #86
Winter 2001-02

Cathedral of the North
Poems by Connie Voisine. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, $12.95 paper. Reviewed by Denise Duhamel.

Connie Voisine’s
Cathedral of the North is an intriguing account of the working poor of Maine, a place where the speaker’s “yard blooms with refrigerators and cars inside out and rusting.” Like Carolyn Chute’s earlier novels, Voisine’s poetry is wholly unsentimental, tactile, and filled with unexpected beauty.

She is political in the best sense. For the most part, she lets her images stand for themselves, so that when she makes such assertions as “Many know the exhaustion of public assistance. / How fear can pretend it is pride. / How deeply unreasonable the notion of an omnipotent god seems at these times,” her reader stays with her. While Voisine’s work does not concern itself directly with shame or self-loathing, many of her poems deal with escape and fantasy. In “Hungry,” for example, a fourteen-year-old has a steamy correspondence with a pen pal who is in prison and to whom she lies about her “pretty clothes her palomino disco records gold rings.”

There is also an obsession with dirt and cleanliness throughout
Cathedral of the North. In “That Far North,” the speaker’s mother says, “I don’t care how poor you are . . . you can at least be clean.” In “The House by the Dump,” Voisine writes, “My mother washed my knees / with Brillo on Saturday nights.” In “Cameo,” the speaker saves change in a sock so that her mother can go to the car wash: “I watched the soapy foam / shoot over the window just above my face, / the whips of the cloth-brushes spin and / beat me in my box of glass.”

The poem “What Was So Beautiful About the Father” serves as the emotional center of the book. It’s a brilliant collage that concerns itself with the speaker’s father and his job as a logger, his impossible efforts to make ends meet, his literal and figurative “broken back.” Voisine swings from the economics of logging to the very personal story of one family, from obscure movies to photographs, from memory to floods in Maine. In one prose poem section, she writes that “the past was magical and true . . . It had an air of the tragic, if only because its result was the dull, difficult wait we lived now.”

The father of the poem has lost an eye in an accident, and the theme of dismemberment occurs again in “Route One”: the speaker’s aunt marries a man without thumbs the same summer that a man with plastic legs, “army legs,” comes to town. Moreover, in “Grandfather,” Voisine writes, “As a kid, you lost / your pinkie to a saw, cutting the lake for ice, / and your glove remained whole.”

One of Voisine’s strongest poetic gifts is the collage, the putting together of incongruous imagery, the way the speaker trades her “free lunch cake” for money (in “Cameo”) and her “surplus cheese from the state / for an electric Lady Shaver” (in “Hungry”). This is a dazzling, brave, and surprising first book.

Denise Duhamel’s most recent title is Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems
(Pittsburgh, 2001). A 2001 NEA fellow in poetry, she is an assistant professor at Florida International University in Miami.