In his [/her work], every memoirist leaves behind a better or worse likeness of the people he knew, alongside two self-portraits. The first of these two is painted intentionally, while the second is unplanned, accidental. It goes without saying that the first is more flattering than the second, and the second is more faithful than the first. The better the writer, the more attention we should pay to this discrepancy. —Wislawa Symborska
“Laundry Life,” the opening of three sections in Ann Elizabeth Carson’s memoir, Laundry Lines, combines both poetry and prose. The effect of combining two genres makes for a dynamic reading experience and allows the reader to approach memoir with varied narrative perceptions. Most effective is the song-poem prior to prose:
before the light goes out...
Hear the faint, waiting hums that heed
disembodied stories strung juicy deep, ours to be born into
when we gaze in wonder at the little we have come to know.
as my mother hangs clothes on two steel lines,
wooden pegs in a pouch on the line, the next peg
in her mouth—she could even talk around it.
Socks line up just so, toes point in one direction
the days the heels and toes face
each other is a sure sign of trouble brewing.
Beyond "Laundry Life," the longest narrative poem in the book, Carson moves into prose. This sets up an emotive flow that allows for a gentler entry into one woman’s story. A succinct feminine approach? Rather, an engagement with feminism as Carson writes her memoir celebrating and questioning the women who have been and remain of influence to her life’s narrative. Carson’s feminism also manifests through her approach of combining two genres. A playful, yet birth-like approach, a duality that invites the blending into one. As two lovers melding to become one in a memoir of story and song.
It’s a supreme act of control to understand a life as a story that resonates with others. It’s not a diary. It’s taking this chaos and making a story out of it, attempting to make art out of it. When you’re a writer, what else is there to do? […] It’s like stitching together a quilt, creating order that isn’t chronological order—it’s emotional, psychological order. —Dani Shapiro, Still Writing
Shapiro’s image of the quilt fits perfectly with Carson’s own inclusion of specific memories of the women of her childhood and how they stitched, used, and kept quilts. A vital aspect of her upbringing, which she shapes into a sharing of its personal and culturally symbolic influence on her life. A fluid uncertainty moves moodily through the memoir questioning whether “quilting” is both a memoir technique itself and something that Carson has conscientiously researched, or an intuitive understanding by way of her introduction to the reader.
There's a comfort in discovering the assimilation of “stitching,” Carson's weaving toward reconciliation, her inclination (perhaps) toward mending the abstract mind over memory using two genres. The book is organised, both in its introduction and division into three sections with a clarity that is sometimes missed, unless the reader makes a strident effort to understand Carson's need to claim (her) memory as solid. There's a distinct record to be found in the presentation of each section, a method that differs from a chapter by chapter approach. This could be the effect of this memoirist’s passionate exposure to psychology and her desire to bridge its formulaic approach with creative writing. She declares to her reader(s) in her introduction, “perhaps you will hang out some of your own laundry one day.”
Time is shelved chronologically in memories of hanging laundry—
Waitressing to earn my university fees
between meals, I help the laundress string
long rows of flopping sheets
behind Monhegan's Inn.
Newly wed, our below ground city apartment boasts no green
A tangle of ropes stretched on a wooden frame in the bathtub
collapses... under the weight of dripping hand-wrung garments...
I learned to drive... baby buckled beside laundry heaped high
in the back seat. I rattle up Spadina's red cobbles to new machines
wash three loads, hang out, take in, hang out, fold and fold and fold
A hot little house down-payment-boosted from parental pockets,
suburban women chat across fences, laundry placed neat
Always I write. Words are in spaces
between soak and churn, laundry, tears
laughter and weary bones, between
hang out in every weather. Places found
to dry, fold and sort once more...
What is dry memory? What is wet memory? Dry land, wet water—moving between the two elements constantly awash in memory. Among all the laundry of a “certain” adult and new mother, she moves briskly through time, fast and mobile. There's little emotion here, rather a brisk unending song—swift, longer than a sparrow's whistle and squeak. It's not a mating call. It's a sure song of knowing, without wonder, without despair. A descriptive matter of facts sorted and strung together like never ending clothes gathered to “come out” of the (a)wash that is Carson's memories, some dripping and some almost dry—is there a need for clipping all these pieces of wear along her laundry line? Here, the laundry is hard, sometimes difficult as insects appear, there is movement among space, hung laundry beckons at more poems reminiscing with relief.
Carson's prose in this section reads fast, unflinching, specific. She writes about the death of her aunt, “of course, I am crying, just as I am now. She turns at me, blue eyes clear and alive. ‘I love you, Ann.’ ‘I love you too, Getty.’ and I lean forward to tuck my head into her shoulder.” She describes road travel accompanied by family as repetitive dances—her polka-like skipping between Southern Ontario's Toronto and Cheltenham at a young vibrant age. The men in her youth, much like neighbours are elusive, women, aunts and mothers are a tone to be reckoned with, their voices clear, bossy, and strong. An undertow persists, a voice questioning what lies beneath these “formed” women of Carson's before. Before war time, what exists? For the bigger women, the stern sensation of a youth that expects to keep them role models. Carson's prose boasts of familial pride—tasks on a farm, cooking techniques, teaching women, men in the background. Fathers and uncles linger in darkened shadow—poverty, warning, doubt and death. Is this the first hint of Carson's claim to “feminism” or fear? The discovering of silence in the swift?
Where preparations of food are found, the languish of eating, there's less apprehension. Carson offers lists of who shares their specialized dishes, both men and women, during seasons and celebrations in a prosaic chronology in each stage of her story. She arrives to greet her own children at festive gatherings with gratitude.
However, in the second section, the suggestive quality of her section title “Border Lines”, Carson's voice seems to read less excitedly, the tone steeps the reader in a more emotional binary approach. The contents split apart decidedly. The approach to endings and beginnings are formal, unflinching. This central body of Carson's memoir is its most challenging. Here we are invited into her struggle by its most apparent view. The element of water becomes ice and her ground sways as the voice goes from fire to a sombre sobriety of visiting memory through disappointment, loss, struggle, uncertainty, and a further stretch into solitude: “to get (a)head just enough to feel secure.” Her spirits move into a slower more awakened voice. She conscientiously continues a complex textile—her quilt full of description, a slow breeze of nuance where the familiar revisits familial personas, no longer the inquisitive child.
I own one, appliqued pink and mauve tulips
cupped by green leaves. Different patterns
for each of my children. Wedding gifts
to last lifetimes and beyond. The quilts
must be hand-stitched, no machine shortcuts allowed.
Carson also shares her experience of the Second World War, the fragility of her sentiments is apparent among her disheveled surroundings. Food and prose meet in the remembrance of rations. Prayer and a relationship to faith are strung together in a prose description, tight and compact. Knowledge is keen, the events of world news, family, and relatives on the move is pointedly recorded in memory, an impressive disclosure of detail in prose. Carson eloquently sews her thoughts in a continuously here, makes her comparisons to the present, revisits the past and questions her thoughts of the future from a past point of view. She begins to share an analysis with the reader of a life lived and living in the experiential words and phrases. “Looking back;” “hope;” “we don't see much of each other for many years;” “serendipity;” “the war began for me with a personal marker event.” This place in time is marked in dates—the memoirist determining her experience of traumatic days, nights, years in prose. The poems are, unique to the section, fitted into the prose and separate poems that ought to relish memory and its parts or places are sparse.
In “Life Lines”, food, herbs, lush outdoor garden life are among the laundry that hangs for all to share. These provide rhythms where Carson’s memoirist point of view bubbles in poetry. There is a larger sense of combined poem and prose to express “memoria” of glee, awe, and wonder at her existing stasis among a surreal notion of time, asking what is age or aging?
In “Manitoulin Laundry lines,” the book presents precepts of writing, workshops, and ideas as these tasks circle her outdoor hanging of laundry. An inner journey into the experience of writing is expressed through poetry. Lakes, birds, minnows, disrupt the fauna. Nature’s subtle nuances with a human presence, as if wanting to ghost one's way through the island and its Manitou Spirit. There's a description of what it is to be home and away among these poems—skinny dipping, lake escape, foreplay—nature's sexuality explored with the revival of Carson's youth returns among poems, which are dominant here as she embodies “the world is young."
How will she grow in summer heat?
Though the question is literal, the effect lingers, providing a sense that Carson's own story is somewhat unfinished. She requires continued growth among Island friends to discover herself further. As the woman within subscribes to the movement and hum of bees, becomes “fat before my eyes,” again her story is grows, plump and fully rounded.
Wide cradled in warm stone ravished by smooth silky folds of roseate granite old as time.
Water bubbles fur my skin
Need I care for other than lake cover
to caress my glistening
Carson shares her seasons in Ontario's north, how to stay warm in winter, managing ice, differentiates rocks from stones—a return to the familiar of ice storm that melted into the return and growth of goldenrod, Queen Anne's lace, crayfish crabs among the settling ice that melts to become a summer dock, the first days of geese beginning Autumn's migration. Carson's memories beckon to migrate in tandem—
A flock of geese circles the lake crying
“One last look?” as I do, in stages,
these last September days.
Her consistent return is to attempt understanding of a life lived, living, and disembodied through a highly personal approach to descriptive language of two literary genres, the poet's song and the memoir’s forbidden tales. She earnestly works to weave and mend through memoir a heartening yet heavy testament to a strong and proud Canadian woman's inner story now ripened (as she has). The narrator begins by beckoning both herself and the reader, and this call persists throughout the entire memoir toward her final female quest.
For years I've been waiting for old woman
feeling lost and so alone, I've been watching.
Now I find her weaving, gathering the colours
Now I find her in myself.
Reviewer: Sonia Di Placido
Sonia is a graduate of the Ryerson Theatre School and an Honours BA Humanities, York University. A member of the League of Canadian Poets and the Association of Italian Canadian Writers, Sonia has two chapbooks: Vulva Magic(Lyrical Myrical, 2004) and Forest Primitive (Aelous House, 2008) and a full-length poetry collection, Exaltation in Cadmium Red (Guernica Editions, 2012). She has interviews and works in print and online literary journals, and in anthologies. Some are The Puritan, The White Wall Review, Jacket2,The California Journal of Women Writers, and the Poet to Poet Anthology.