Poetry Review by Hollay Ghadery

Adele Wiseman, The Dowager Empress, edited by Elizabeth Greene (Toronto: Inanna, 2019). Paperbound, 160 pp., $18.95.

The Dowager Empress“I wish I could say Adele Wiseman needs no introduction,” writes Elizabeth Greene, succinctly characterizing a chief tragedy of Wiseman’s prolific, but largely unrecognized, writing career. Known primarily for her two novels, The Sacrifice and Crackpot, and, to a lesser extent for her memoir of her mother, Old Woman at Play, Wiseman has gone almost unnoticed as a poet. The main reason, as Greene notes in in her measured and moving Introduction, is that Wiseman’s poetry is “the work of her last ten years.” Until now, the bulk of it had been relegated, unpublished, to the Archives at York University. Like Wiseman herself, the poetry collected here incorporates both the ethereal and the everyday, the popular and the marginal, the timely and the timeless. In curating the poems from over 330 pieces while consulting with the poet’s friends, colleagues, scholars, and, notably, her daughter, Greene shows a deep sensitivity to what can be assumed to be Wiseman’s own vision.

The Dowager Empress is divided into five sections: “Instructions from Poems in Progress”; “In Our Play”; “Mysteries of Flight”; “Spaces”; and “The Dowager Empress Suite.” The first section’s title poem beautifully sets up what a reader can expect from the whole:

Welcome surprises.
Ignore temptation of
the easy and familiar
They will quickly bore.
Their function I [sic] to be
discarded possibility.
Milestones, their significance
is that you pass them by.

Every poem in this book is somehow surprising, offering nuggets of truth and beauty as delightful as they are deep and dark. One of the most surprising elements is the poems’ rawness. Greene mentions that not all of them are what Wiseman would have considered finished. It is hard to guess which, but as I read, I felt I had been afforded a rare glimpse of playful and pure thought. The fearlessness of Wiseman’s writing, it seems, has not been polished out. This opening section illuminates a theme that Wiseman returns to again and again: “Abandoned sounds and junked ideas / may be sign posts to alternate routes. // Cultivate the pleasure of rejecting.” These cast-offs tell us as much about ourselves as what we cling to: “You should always be surprised by the end result. / It’s the moment you learn what you’ve been about.”

The second and third sections feature poems that are short and small, but broad in scope. They would have flourished in the age of Instagram, but with none of the “second-hand” epiphanies common among Insta-poets—and against which Wiseman warns in “Instructions for Poems in Progress.” Rather, her poetry would have been the best possible incarnation of Instagram poetry:

In your garden my
small, pink, bleeding heart survives
your indifference. (“Haiku: In Your Garden”)

Birds burst from purple brush
catapult into sky
great flocks of birds that fly
like snapping fingers. (“Birds Burst”)

There is any easy sophistication in these poems but no presumption, no expectation that readers should work for answers; only that they allow themselves time to arrive at them. In “Currents,” Wiseman writes: we “Who know the world / ride shifting currents / learn to balance / in capricious flow, / learn to look as though / we’re going where we want to go.” The whole poem is breathtaking, but these lines embody a sentiment that Wiseman often touches on: surrendering to invisible forces as a defensive and offensive tactic, suspending control and abandoning yourself to wonder, fear, and longing so as to gain a more profound understanding of life.

Another feature of Wiseman’s poetry that deserves attention is its humour—at its best, to my mind, in the later sections. In some places, the humour is obvious, but there are poems in which it is darker and more nuanced: “You will run / in progressively smaller circles / till you’re all that’s left. / Exit through yourself.” This dark humour is used to tackle difficult subjects: death, and, also, politics. Wiseman’s writing is very political, and is so without being alienating.

The final section, “The Dowager Empress Suite,” reveals all that previous sections have prepared us to expect. It is ridiculous in the best possible way: a high comedy, as Greene notes, which exposes folly by making light of it. The style is formal but the content wonderfully ludicrous. The suite begins with the Emperor’s death and the Dowager’s ascension. During her ten-thousand-year reign, she thwarts traditional masculinity time and time again by undercutting its authority with often buoyant flippancy. Even when the second assassination attempt on her life is successful, the traitorous murders are faced with feathers rather than blood and guts:

They hacked and they slashed and they raged
that she somehow unmanned and
escaped them, made them feel silly
in a chamber grown thick and thicker
with feathers, like nothing more
than the room at night
of children after a pillow fight.

This twist turns what could be a brutal scene of masculine domination into a comical pillow fight, undercutting yet again the authority of these men. Even in death, the Dowager Empress “unmans” them, just as even in death Wiseman continues to surprise us—precisely as she proposed all good poets should.


—Hollay Ghadery

As in The Malahat Review, 210, spring 2020