Brick Books, 2013
Reviewed by Francine McCabe
Emotionally charged, witty, and surprising- Catherine Greenwood’s second published collection of poetry, The Lost Letters, allows the reader to appreciate the long-ago love story of Heloise and Abelard with a modern twist. Greenwood explores forbidden, separated love. Heloise and Abelard were driven apart after they were discovered having an uncsanctioned relationship in the 12th century.
The book is broken into four sections. The first consists of an epigraph from the first letter written to Abelard from Heloise, “And as most of these songs told of our love, they soon/ made me widely known and roused the envy of many…” The readers has a sense of the agonized emotions experienced by the lovers.
This is followed by a single poem in this section, with a cleaver title, “Monk Love Blues.” “Got a little thing/ I call the Monk Love Blues./ Heloise and Abelard—/ this kind of thing ain’t new.” Greenwood joins the lovers of the past to contemporary times in a blues verse that is at once music on the page and in melody.
Many of the poems include excerpts of epigraphs from Penguin’s The Lost Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Greenwood follows each epigraph with poem that resonates for present-day readers.
In one of the central poems, “Yes and No,” titled after Abelard’s books Sic et Non, Greenwood takes on the voice of Abelard and successfully delivers her take on a modern day love poem: “allow me to admit how deeply/ I regret not kissing you/ hello and goodbye.”
Although Greenwood’s diction may seem simple, she shocks us with her sharp alliteration in the other lines of this poem: “of sautéed boot. As proof…[more of the quote here? Confusing]” and her play on words throughout this poem keeps it lively and enthralling: “black and white, hot and cold, day and night, hello and goodbye, yes and no.”
Greenwood has many lengthy poems in this collection, but each is broken into stanzas that stand on their own. The poem that closes the collection, “The Jar” is one of the longest, but tells a vivid narrative story about…. The narrative arc in this closing poem could have been developed into a story of its own.
The Lost Letters is a challenging read at first, but if you give the words the time they warrant you will find beauty in each carefully crafted line.
Greenwood’s poetry has been widely published and has received many awards including the National Magazine Gold Award. Her first collection of poetry, The Pearl King and Other Poems, was a Kiriyama Prize notable book. She currently works with BC’s Ministry of Justice and resides in Victoria.