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Book review: Here, on the Ground by Marianne Jones

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If you are aware of the tension between what is and what could be, the contrast between the real and the ideal, the distance between earth and heaven, the poems in Here, on the Ground will resonate with you. This collection of 58 poems is award-winning poet Marianne Jones’ second (her first book Highway 17 was published in 1997).

Through her poems Jones addresses a variety of subjects: relationships, women’s issues, the allure of a simple life, personal pain and growth, Bible characters, writing, and what it feels like to live through a Canadian winter. I thoroughly enjoyed the variety. But no matter what the subject, Jones always manages to twist the knife of new awareness in some way.

Sometimes she does it through allusion. That is the effect of the word “alabaster” in these opening lines of “The Jar” that takes us back to the story of the woman who broke her jar of perfume to anoint Jesus:

You split my heart open
that was calm and contained as alabaster…” — “The Jar” p. 32.

Sometimes she does it with images, as in this poem that speaks of leaving a toxic relationship:

“You were always uneasy about having me around anyway
like an old grenade in your house.” — “grenade” p. 33.

At other times her intertwining of old and new captures our attention. A poem that’s titled “sleep disorder” speaks of modern Christianity’s lethargy in language that reminds us of the sleepy disciples in Gethsemane:

“We mean well;
it’s our eyes that are heavy…” “sleep disorder” p. 41.

At still others she uses extended metaphor with a telling and humorous effect, as in the poem titled “Canadian Tire”:

“At the temple of function over form
navy clad worshippers in sober boots and parkas
file through sliding jaws
of Entrance and Exit, leaving offerings…” — “Canadian Tire” p. 63.

Whatever the subject or device, we sense the tension between the ideal and the real. It comes out in her poems about the environment:

“One drop of beauty shames a library of tomes.
One loon’s call speaks better things
than all their interviews” — “noise pollution” p. 6.

We hear it in the tone of voice as she speaks through the persona of a Bible character:

“before god walked away
and this long night began
i felt grass under my feet;
i saw sky blue and everlasting

i have almost forgotten how blue” — “job speaks” p. 25.

Most of all this dichotomy comes out in her poems about relationships. Of these a poem about forgiveness speaks with candid power:

“Forgiving is being forced to squeeze through a dark tunnel,
I panic, thinking I will stop breathing
or be unable to endure the knife cuts
But then I come to the openness and light at the end
and laugh, or weep for sheer relief…” — “upon opening my prison door” p. 36.

Of course there are fun poems in the collection as well. The section titled “red shoes” contains several whimsical poems that speak from the viewpoints of fairy tale characters. The book ends with a tongue-in-cheek section titled “How Canadians Survive Winter” (Jones, who lives in Thunder Bay Ontario, knows whereof she speaks).

Though some of Jones’ poems touch on the subject of her Christian faith, they never confront the reader in a preachy way. Throughout we feel like we are in the company of someone idealistic, who, when she takes a close look at herself often finds she doesn’t quite measure up. Her honesty helps us identify the issues she grapples with in ourselves, empathize with her disappointments, and celebrate her insights.

This is a rich and accessible collection that will reward readers in many ways.

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