As the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda did with his odes to ordinary things, Fiona Tinwei Lam does with her odes in praise of commonplace items such as Plate, Chopsticks, Soap, August Raspberries, Stop Sign, Pencil and Milk.
“Cake” is an accumulation poem with the narrator noting Five Roses and Purity Flour cookbooks “my mother bought by mailing in labels.” Types of cakes are listed in the prose poem and there are cookies, bars, éclairs. The narrator declares in the end that she has “No idea how to make conversation, but could follow recipes, bake my way / into presence.”
Presence is what is required to write a poem and Fiona Tinwei Lam shares that presence with us in her finely crafted poems.
The first poem in the collection is “Libation” and reads as if the poet is lifting a glass to toast the commonplace and the natural world as well as mourn the continuing abuse of the natural world.
“For what is juice but poetry” is the poet’s rhetorical question as she offers the poems to readers in “Libation.” “What’s held within / this cup, this poem, this juice / I offer you.”
The collection also includes odes to the natural world including Crow, Sea Star, Mountains, and Swallow. Some of the poems are dedicated, mostly to people, and “Crow” is dedicated to Canuck, “East Van’s [East Vancouver, B.C.] favourite crow.”
“Lost Stream” is an ode and a lament as the stream remembers as does the poet as she pays tribute to what was once “mossy banks, fringes of fern, rivulets, riffles / cool passage for salmon.” The city stream as the poet describes it refuses “to be choked by concrete and “civilized grids.” To the stream that is now underground, the poet says, “you gurgle, chortle, ready to rise.”
“Pool” is a narrative poem, poignant in its telling of the “new L-shaped house” with “a pool at its heart.” The house and its swimming pool are described in a steady decline “as each of us left.”
All the colours of the rainbow are noted in “Spectrum” as the poet uses each colour to prompt memories of someone’s experience with cancer. The poem is dedicated to Tinwei Lam’s partner Ted.
There are various forms of poems in this diverse collection, including “Postcard Tanka” and a ghazal entitled “Ghazal for Gestating Poems,” as well as concrete poems in which the poems take on the shape of their subject.
“Consumery” takes the shape of a bottle with terms such as “salt free, dairy free, MSG free, peanut free” in a list beside the phrase “wrapped in plastic” repeated to make up most of the shape of the visual bottle.
There are several visual or concrete poems about plastic and in her acknowledgments, Tinwei Lam thanks Shannon Cowan who “patiently taught me how to use WordArt on my ancient refurbished laptop, which I used to fashion the plasticpoems.”
Odes & Laments is such a delightful and innovative approach to celebrate and mourn the things, the people, the natural world we so often overlook and even neglect.