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Reviews of Saviours in This Little Space for Now.
Higgins, Michael. “Floating Between the Greys and Rising Sun.” Rev. of Saviours in This Little Space for Now: Poems for Emily Carr and Vincent van Gogh. Telegraph Journal 3 August, 2013: S6.
It was a curious discovery and a rich one. I had just finished teaching a graduate course in Vancouver on the psychologist and spiritual writer Henri J.M. Nouwen and one of the lectures dealt with his understanding of the life and work of his compatriot, Vincent van Gogh. Nouwen’s most popular course at Yale University was on Vincent – his art and his spirituality. Nouwen’s insights provided a unique aperture into his own theological and psychological travails.
A few hours before boarding my plane back to Connecticut, I decided to revisit the Vancouver Art Gallery – in particular the Emily Carr collection. As I was leaving, I happened upon a small stack of books near the door in the gallery bookstore. The cover drew my attention but the contents are more than compelling; they are epiphanic.
Stephanie McKenzie, a British Columbia native now teaching English at Memorial University’s Grenfell campus in Corner Brook, N.L., has had a long and creatively nurturing attraction to both the 19th-century Dutch artist van Gogh and the Canadian writer and painter Carr. Her approach – both academic and poetic – bears close attention.
McKenzie manages to find spiritual and artistic alignments in places dark and luminous. Of their respective struggles with lucidity, breakdown and depression she notes: “Do not house me in diagnoses, medical practitioners’/ affairs. Or maddened airs. If one day writers gather round/ searching my mind, tell them truth is only/ in my paintings.” (Floating Between the Greys and Rising Sun)
Although the above poem is about Carr, the van Gogh resonances, parallels and personal convergences of mind and spirit are adroitly and obliquely suggested. This is what poetry does; it paints a mental landscape of connections.
In an illuminating afterword, McKenzie, determined to ensure that the poetic voice retains its immediacy and discrete integrity, provides a prose exposition of the synchronicities and convergences that enrich and reward a second reading of the poems. Misfits, solitaries, obsessive, emotionally conflicted and profoundly sympathetic to the marginalized, both van Gogh and Carr can be seen as spiritual voices in their time. McKenzie observes:
“Son of a clergyman and an aspiring preacher himself, van Gogh never seemed to leave his faith in God behind. And although Carr would severely question Christianity, most notably the missionaries of her day who attempted to proselytize amongst the Native populations of B.C., she, too, maintained a belief in her Christian upbringing, especially when the leading artists of her time embraced theosophy and she could not pin that philosophy to any specific kind of deity or meaning.”
The artists come together in the poet’s imagination in time and space: “none can dispute you were lonely. I have grown/ more lonely, too. In your presence. Today, writing of you/ from B.C., the sky, overcast, does not afford/ one single flower.” (“Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers (after Gaugin)”)
Saviours in this Little Space for Now is a surprising treasure.
Michael W. Higgins is vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is a former president of St. Thomas University.
Rev. of Saviours in This Little Space for Now: Poems for Emily Carr and Vincent van Gogh. Contemporary Verse 2: The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Thinking. 17 Sept. 2014.
Saviours in This Little Space for Now
Stephanie McKenzie’s Saviours in This Little Space for Now explores the lives and artwork of painters Emily Carr and Vincent Van Gogh. The poems in this collection are fluid, they run through each other like paint. The lives of Van Gogh and Carr blend together as McKenzie explores the similarities between the artists, both real and imagined. But McKenzie also contrasts Van Gogh and Carr, linking one’s struggle with madness to the other’s difficulties with gender: “To be a woman is always to be mad. / There is no cure.” The emphasis is on sameness as well as difference: “If I’d been born a woman prostrate / falling sexless in the eyes of lords / I’d swear the patterns would be different / in my skies.” Many of the poems in Saviours in This Little Space for Now focus on the search for truth but McKenzie refuses to accept an absolute as the answer. She walks the line between historical truth (as illustrated through the several notes and appendices at the end of the book) and the subjective truth of her art (as seen in her poetry.) She interprets the narratives of Carr and Van Gough not only through their histories, but through their artwork as well. Saviours in This Little Space for Now speaks to the existence of an artist beyond their bodies and into their paint painting, their “little space,” or—even—their poem.