It's National Poetry Month, so every Monday in April I will be reviewing/discussing a book of Canadian poetry.
Compared to the other collections I've featured this month, Jan Conn's Red Shoes in the Rain is a relatively old one; it is also, perhaps, the most traditional of all the collections. Conn's poetry is heavily rooted in nature and emotion, and each poem is like a snapshot of a particular feeling, at a particular time, in a particular place. And, because Conn has travelled widely, that place could be anywhere from Niagara Falls, to Japan's Oki Islands, to a backyard, allowing the collection to hopscotch around.
What makes Red Shoes in the Rain is how vivid Conn's natural descriptions are. She tends to focus on similar elements – trees, clouds, and precipitation, in particular – but they are always specific to the scene. Conn's descriptions are never generic, which acts as a subtle reminder that we are not looking at a scene from a general point of view, but from her perspective specifically. In her poem "Choices," Conn writes about the Niagara Falls legends – the heroism of the barrel riders and the tight-rope walker, the despair of a mother who dropped her child – as though they are being discussed by friends. Here, the stilted conversation is heightened by slices of detail about where they are: "we walk between twisted trees / make starts of conversation. / wind whips sheets of snow / over dead grass; pares our faces / thin as paper."
When Conn is at her best, her verses offer up an emotional response without needed to tell you what it should be. Although she sometimes slips and tells you exactly what her metaphor is meant to convey, she generally trusts her reader. Conn doesn't write complicated or abstract poems, or play overly with language; rather, she focuses on the sharpness of an image. Conn writes a lot about the feeling of post-relationship loss, that very real feeling that something is missing, or that you aren't where you should be: "I should be asleep. my body / is light, almost transparent. / the bones turn softly, dream / of waking in some other room."
This is the real attraction to Red Shoes in the Rain: it is honest and beautiful in a way that is almost painful, because all the description and emotion is filtered so close to Conn's heart. Although there are a few poems that feel written at arm's length, the majority of these pieces are about the deeply personal experience of moving on, and realizing again and again that you no longer belong where you once did. Conn is generous with her experiences, which makes this collection rather a guilty pleasure of a read.
Red Shoes in the Rain
by Jan Conn
First published in 1984 (cover image shown from Fiddlehead Poetry Books edition)