I am delighted to welcome Katherine Venn to continue our series on overlooked poets.
Alice Major, decorated author of ten collections of poetry, is hardly overlooked in her native Canada; but to my (limited, I must confess) knowledge she’s not made huge waves against the shores of our consciousness over here in the UK. I was lucky enough to be introduced to her writing a few years ago in possibly the best of all ways: a reading, organised by mutual friends in north London. She read from her latest book, an ambitious epic called The Office Tower Tales – a sort-of reworking of The Canterbury Tales by way of One Thousand and One Nights, as told among three Canadian office-workers. Listening to her read I was instantly hooked, picked up a copy that night (why didn’t I ask her to sign it?) and took it on a family holiday where I had to fight off both my mum’s and my brother’s attempts – neither of them regular poetry readers – to wrest it from me. I’ve recommended it before as ideal reading to take on holiday: its scope and heft – a chunky 250 pages – and strongly narrative form make it poetry for when you feel like relaxing into something lengthy, but don’t want prose-as-usual. I thought I’d lost my beautiful, magpie-adorned copy of The Office Tower Tales for good, until my mum (I knew I’d lent it to her after that holiday) found it under a pile of other books…
That holiday memory must have lodged itself in my brain somehow, because I chose to take another of Major’s books, prose this time, away with me on a solo camping trip last summer. Lent by the same friends who introduced me to her in the first place, it looked enjoyably dense and complex enough to demand the kind of reading time you get on holiday: unhurried, leisured, with the space to open up to complicated ideas. Intersecting Sets is Major’s completely beguiling exploration of what science and poetry might have to say to one another, looking at ideas like symmetry, scale and time through both scientific and poetic lenses, seeing where they overlap, and what the margins of each throws up. I genuinely found this a breathtaking read, sharing everything that makes Major’s poetry such a pleasure to read: rigorously thoughtful, inventive, freewheeling, full of genuine surprises and showing a complete delight in the strangenesses and wonders both of the physical world, and the world of language.
Just in the last few months I’ve read Major’s most recent collection of poetry, last year’s Standard Candles. A standard candle is an astrophysical object that has a known luminosity, and so can be used to measure distances; Major wields this intriguing metaphor gracefully throughout the collection – a generously proportioned one, composed of a number of different sequences, many of them concerned (as the title would suggest) with scientific exploration.
The first thing I really noticed about Standard Candles was the contents page, which got me thinking – do I ever really pause and read the contents pages of poetry collections? I’m not sure I do. I read this one, though, and it felt like looking through a sweet shop window: so many enticing titles that I wanted to read them all at once. Where would you begin – with a poem about ‘The god of sparrows’ (part of a sequence imagining that rather than there being just one ‘god particle’, the world might be made up of a pantheon of god particles); with ‘How to tell a Martian my heart is on the left’; with a poem whose title consists of one fearsome equation, ‘d = (X – x)2 + (Y – y)2 + (Z – z)2 – c (T – t)2 | now’ (in case you’re wondering, this is the formula for calculating the distance separating two events in space-time, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity); or would you perhaps skip right to the end, with the postscript, ‘God submits a grant application to the Canada Council’? (I jumped around for a bit at first, which I don’t usually do; then steadily worked my way through the collection from beginning to end, which I do.)
The promise that Major holds out in these deliciously inviting titles is answered, fully, in the poems themselves. She has everything that I most love, most want, in poetry: wit, startling originality, the power to move without a shred of sentimentality or manipulation – and perhaps most of all, the ability to take you somewhere new both intellectually and experientially. I think I was most taken by the title sequence Standard Candles, twelve poems that mixes the narrator’s journey from the ‘nested spheres’ of ‘her family’s basement living room / like a beige-walled pericardium / wrapped around its heart’ to maths lessons, the death of a mother and its ‘universe of loss’, meditations on the existence or otherwise of God, her life arcing ‘across / decades of discovery’, with the stories of various astronomers and their discoveries. All combine in the search for, as a standard candle does, the need to fix on one certain point in order to verify other uncertainties. I found this sequence almost unbearably moving at points; reading it having just suffered a distant but painful death, I found myself embarrassed to be weeping over its pages in an open-plan office at lunchtime. I don’t think Aphrodite, Pandora and Sheherazad – the characters in The Office Tower Tales – would have minded.
Katherine Venn studied for a Masters in Creative Writing at UEA in 2009/10, then returned to London to continue working part-time as a commissioning editor. She has written a children’s novel and is currently working on an overly ambitious non-fiction project, but reading and writing poetry is her main preoccupation. Her much-neglected blog is at www.settheweatherfair.wordpress.com