Reviewed by Kate Rogers
The Thing with Feathers is Cobourg Poet Laureate Jessica Outram’s first poetry collection. It is a courageous journey of self-exploration and coming to terms with trauma. The title, based on Emily Dickinson’s well-known lines about hope perching in the soul, opens the door to eventual healing. However, many of the poems in the first two sections are about the struggle with depression linked to a struggle to recognise supressed trauma. Her collection raises the question How does anyone learn to live with a traumatic past? The process of doing that is the core of the book.
We are introduced to the speaker’s reflective journey into and out of despair in the poem “Beginning.” She tells us that “old scaffolding / leans courage ladders / on new truth platforms.” In this poem “house plants / turn wild,” suggesting the speaker’s surprise at her own growth. In “If She Had a Secret Garden,” the speaker’s “tangled prayers climb stone walls.”
The poem “Falling into Blankness” evokes the speaker’s depression and exhaustion well. As an educator who is also a writer I can relate to how hard it can be to reach for creativity after a full day of teaching and being on your feet: “in the evening she paints misty truths / while hands and feet sizzle.”
The lines in which the speaker describes how she “craves an overcast sky / to quiet the mornings // …blends mud and clouds” and being “soaked in fog / like a lighthouse on a humid island” are also very relatable and beautifully evoke Cobourg harbour.
In her role as Cobourg Poet Laureate Jessica Outram maintains a blog she calls “Sunshine in a Jar.” Jars feature in many of her poems in The Thing with Feathers. The jar poems in the book range from nostalgia to despair. The poem “Something Inside Her Childhood” focuses on positive memories, beginning with the her mom’s inviting “strawberry jam [on] the kitchen counter.”
Among the collection’s most courageously vulnerable poems is “Open the Jar” in which the speaker removes the lid on her memory. It whispers to her that “a piece of the story is missing.”
Jessica Outram is also Principal of Indigenous Education for the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board and an important role model. Her students’ struggles contribute to her understanding of her own adolescence in the poem “Open the Jar.”
The speaker effectively evokes how the intensity of her students in turmoil becomes a trigger for her: “A morning swarming at 7:45. / Two hundred teenagers / chase a Grade 10 girl.”
Soon pepper spray engulfs classrooms, staircases, washrooms. It is a “toxic shot.” A 15-year-old boy is in handcuffs. A student dies. The speaker passes another student her graded work and learns that the girl’s boyfriend is the one in jail, charged with attempted murder. Reflecting on the school day the speaker realizes “Once upon a time / my jar was empty, / the lid twisted tight.”
In the next poem, “She Remembers and Wants to Forget,” the speaker’s journaling reveals to her the “howling hands / memories spilling like blood.”
The speaker of the powerful poem “In a Jar” starts each line with “when” and doesn’t flinch: “she was there / when she wrote poems about death / when her novel started with rape.” The poem reveals the speaker’s suffering and inner struggle: “when her heart beat hot fear” and “when your insults felt like truth.”
In “What Would Great-Auntie Think?” The speaker uncovers more pain: “remembers at nine— / You’re too fat for chocolates, / Auntie said snapping the lid…” // —this mirror haunting her for years.”
In the self-aware poem “The Siren Call of Depression” the speaker sinks “caught between / breath and panic / without gills.” She bravely shares that “…it seems safer to hold… than to claim / some air / as her own.”
Other strong poems include those about the poet’s Georgian Bay Ojibway and Metis ancestors. In the beautiful and moving “And Still She Shines: Take Back the Night” the speaker grieves, “her fists / wrapped around keys /…“sometimes losing to fear.” She remembers and honours the “women in red dresses gone too / beyond medicine wheels.”
In “When She Found Her Voice” the speaker explores how connecting with her heritage through holding a “Smudge Feather” “made her cry.” In the next poem “This Feather Sets Everything in Motion” the speaker learns to “build wings / fly North like her grandmothers // hearing their heartbeats among stars.” In the wistful poem “If She Had Met Her Noohkoom” the speaker’s grandmother gifts her her moccasins and and her wisdom: “Noohkoom says, wait / then…look at the whole tree at once / all the branches together, connected.”
The persona poems in the voice of a match girl ancestor are also among the most deeply felt and well-crafted in the book.
Following in the wake of such brave and well-crafted poems some pieces fell short. Several poems would have had more impact if they had strived for fresher, more original language. Cliché’s and hackneyed metaphors in the poems “She Wants to Feel Special on Ordinary Days,” “When She Thinks About Self-Love”, “Thirteen Lessons That Need Unlearning” and “It’s Time to See What’s Really There” do not support the otherwise strong collection and could have been left out.
That being said, much original figurative language and many beautiful lines appear in The Thing With Feathers and have been quoted in this review. The bravery and emotional honesty of the collection are its greatest strength. I recommend The Thing With Feathers for the power of Jessica Outram’s personal journey and the courage it took to share it.
by Antony Di Nardo
Is poetry story? A tale told twice? Once in the saying and once in how the reader responds? Perhaps. There is evidence of that when you read Jessica Outram’s first book of poetry, nodding your head and agreeing with her that “this is a story about feeling alive.” “Feeling” is the operative word here, and the reader finds that these poems are meant to be felt, absorbed and read with the heart in mind. The language evokes a self-analysis. The poetry emotes. Its imagery relies on binaries of light and dark, highs and lows, memory and reflection. Struggles and successes. Emptiness and fulfillment. Whenever description dominates a poem, it is used to reveal the heart of the speaker and has that special language of heartfelt words echoed in the mind of the reader. Emotions – of loss and anguish, doubt and despair, resilience and redemption – puddle at the bottom of the page.
The voice we hear in these poems talks mostly in the third person and, as the speaker tells the “story about feeling alive,” she faces her inner self, rooted in family and childhood, struggling with acceptance. She wrestles the personal demons she’s trapped and contained in poems that evoke the “jar” as a trope for the self as a vessel. In these poems, the speaker is addressing herself in the first person. As a poetic device it secures an intimate bond between speaker and reader, the reader almost eavesdropping, while Outram carries that “jar” from section to section in this book. Listen to how she begins one of these poems:
I opened the jar and it whispered to me,
a piece of the story is missing.
The jar is containment, whether empty or full, and is always in the process of becoming more or less the sum of itself. The jar is a piece of the story. Later in the book, she writes, “jars are / made to be used” but only after we learn, in a previous poem, that “jar writes at a desk.” I find fascinating how easily the poet manipulates this image of the jar into such different manifestations of the self as both subject and object, as both a vehicle for action and a vessel of past experience.
Some poetry is written to be appreciated for excellence of conceit and craft of language; some poems are to be considered as unique works of art, the stuff of Keats’ “negative capability.” Sometimes Outram’s work comes close to achieving such high praise: when her imagery and diction are fresh and lively, the language then flies off the page. Her poem, “The Thing with Feathers,” that gives the book its title, is a classic example of just that and well worth the price of admission. In this poem, “a wilted flower [is] delivered in the wind” and “there is beauty in death” as the poem’s persona, “waiting for sunflower doors to open, … dreamed of blue fish on willow trees.” What first appears to be a dead flower undergoes a metamorphosis into that “thing with feathers” and, having “prayed for a thousand angels to carry her,” the struggle with body-image is overcome, and the dead bird is re-animated, “holding onto beauty in its way just like her.” The imagery is dynamic. Outram understands that poetry is all about putting the right words in the right order.
“The Moon Shines a Path” begins with the brilliant line, “sadness tucks around furniture.” It’s early dawn and the last of moonlight reveals a cardinal at the window with whom the poem’s persona “… feels connected / talking to birds instead of herself.” Outram does with words what flight can do for birds – and for readers alike: they takes us far, then closer, moving us in and through the light that a poem leaves upon the page.
In both these poems, and in many others, there is an enduring, mythic quality, a sense of wonder which relies on and emerges from Outram’s ancestral roots and from her close affinity with Nature. It is as if the seeds of childhood and that of her origins (“seeds” are another recurring image in this book) have sprouted and the resulting poetry defines a place for itself in the mind of the reader.
This is Outram at her best, sensitive to how words paint experience and how line breaks and diction can be used to create thoughtful pauses and lyrical moments, describing the symmetry that registers as poetry. In these particular poems she avoids the sentimental and comfortable clichés that sometimes clutter other ones, poems that dwell too long (and longingly, I suppose) on the state of the heart, as if it’s all that matters when emotions are privileged and the aesthetics of poetry be damned.
Fortunately, that is not the case when she writes about Nature. In “Five Ways of Looking at Summer,” she re-invigorates Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” echoing it almost word for word as she appropriates and personalizes the original poem’s playful language and powers of observation. “Wild Geese at Lake Ontario”, inspired by another American poet, Mary Oliver, is a sensitive execution of poetic flight that the speaker has been “folding into this space.” Outram once again explores an image that keeps re-surfacing in her work. That of space, both external and internal, a theme that’s repeated in her “Jar” poems, as well as in the first-person performances of the poems she calls “Act One”, “Act Two” and “Act Three.” These are some of the most successful and striking poems in this collection. They unravel and stage, beautifully I might add, an introspective state of emptiness as a space that’s waiting to be filled. She writes:
I’m empty, a container,
a vessel to collect
whatever you desire
I desire more lines like these, and eagerly anticipate Acts Four and Five.
Jessica Outram’s poetry is personal and intimate, characterized by lyrical flights that insist on honesty and sincerity. I can think of no better comment for this work than her very own words: “she watches stories of reciprocity / the value of slow, the courage of noticing. … eye to eye she understands stories of transformation / gifts of seeing, the knowing of living.” It is poetry that’s both affective and effective in recognizing the power of expression as a means of revealing the human spirit and how it is reflected in the outside world. There is clarity of language in these poems, and in that clarity the reader finds what it means to feel alive.