Strong poets draw you into their work and present the essence of a place that you imagine as vivid and real. Agnes Walsh does this in Oderin, her collection of poems named after an island in western Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. Right away, you can imagine there will be water, fish, resettlement and talk of family (in an Irish tradition). What emerges, though, is a poet's homage to her mother's life.
In "Rushoon 3," the houses face the water and not the road. "Once/the sea was their highway./ Once/they walked out their front doors,/climbed down/into their boats/and hit the open road." In "There was Baine Harbour," there is "cold mackerel shoved into/a slice of brown bread,/ black tea." People with Irish heritage will know about strong tea. Mothers and grandmothers have made it for hundreds of years and carried the memory of making it across the sea. It steeps long and hard, and makes you wince a bit when you drink it.
Anyone who has watched a parent die will find their experience mirrored in Oderin. In "Midnight," Walsh writes, elegantly: "oh open your mouth/ throw back your head/ taste the nothingness of stars/ disappearing into you." In other poems, she documents the hallucinations that lead her mother to believe that the sea has come into her hospital room. In "Made in Canada?" Walsh writes: "It's all about water,/ always /about water, her mind afloat,/ on this strange sea/that never butts on land." That place, the one that moves between dimensions, is so common to the worlds of the dying. Walsh aptly captures this dissonance. It's a brave and sacred space that she's writing about, and it's beautifully done.
Oderin speaks to the way in which many people find themselves within their maternal lineage. Walsh roots the poems in this place, but then shows how place isn't always only physical. This is a fine collection of poems, one that leaves you a bit wistful and thoughtful afterwards, pondering where land ends and sea begins, both physically and emotionally.
REVIEW BY KIM FAHNER