The Startled Heart, by Eve Joseph

By Eve Joseph. Oolichan Books, 61 pp, $15.95, softcover.

The posthumous publication of John Thompson's Stilt Jack in 1978 was a watershed in Canadian poetry. Thompson's haunting poems challenged the norms and introduced to this country his version of the ghazal, an ancient Persian form. While sharing the nonconsequential logic of the ancient ghazal--couplets connected through, among other things, sound, image, and tone instead of simple narrative progression--Thompson's poems eschewed the traditional concern of love and wine for darkness and whisky.

Through the years, Canadian poets such as Phyllis Webb, Patrick Lane, and Lorna Crozier have followed Thompson's lead and published accomplished ghazal variations. Add to that list Eve Joseph. In The Startled Heart, Joseph explores with deft precision the interconnectedness between the living, the once-lived, and the dying. Joseph's poems haunt the intersections of loss and having once had, and the numerous ways we feed--with food, acknowledgment, and contemplation.

Whether through simple, devastating observations--such as "What is more tender than the voice/bearing bad news?" and "Handwriting on the recipe card,/a taste the dead take with them"--or the numerous birds that flutter through her poems, each couplet furthers our understanding of loss and grief.

In her introduction, Joseph, a long-time Victoria hospice counsellor, comments on how the ghazal offered a "quick touch that allowed me to write of loss without the full weight of sorrow". In this manner, Joseph's wisely chosen form prevents her poems from sinking into the heavy mucks of nostalgia and the overly confessional. And while the narratives often bounce off into unsuspecting territories, Joseph knows when to ground her poems with domestic situations: "I cook Crepes for my brother,/thirty years later/feed him in death/as I never could in life".

Lesser poets might be tempted to show readers how they should feel, but Joseph never pretends to understand fully the intricacies of death. "What was the first thing you lost?/And the last?/Let her write the eulogy,/after all, it was her death". The Startled Heart is a memorable collection that tugs on death's sleeve, sometimes with the innocence of a child, sometimes with the ache of the unforgiving.