Grey. That was the day. Like most November days in Vernon, BC. Bundling against cold, I made my way from Sveva Caetani’s pleasantly haunted mansion across a downtown where I lived, worked, and grew up (somewhat) for the first twenty years of my life. I was going to meet Kerry Gilbert. As creative writing instructor at Okanagan College, Gilbert personifies all that’s good in contemporary literature. Colleagues seem unable to hide envy as they acknowledge her writing accolades. (At least the one or two I spoke with.) But they don’t stay jealous long. It’s hard not to like Kerry. We were meeting for coffee at a place called Triumph. I admit I felt like a winner. Being early I settled in with a washbasin of latte.
I felt the author’s energy before she walked in, ebullience radiating like rolling red carpet. I knew the smile from social media. In person, the poet’s energy supplanted my tub of caffeine. Sharing an alma mater and a hometown, we had plenty to talk about, visceral memories the common theme. Like the imagined carpet preceding her, I found crimson colouring an otherwise monochrome day, blush of autumn deciduous and the hooded cloak of a forest bound girl.
Gilbert’s quick-paced enthusiasm in conjunction with poignant observation and gritty experience is evident throughout Little Red, her new book of poems. That trail curls back to Sveva’s place, the living structure a pivotal player as much of Little Red was written within those walls – a compact room with a storybook view – the kind of space I’d expect Perrault or the Grimm boys to set quill to paper, scribing early adaptations of the tale. Yes, it’s been told countless times, but never like this. “Her body too is facedown in the ground / like we are planting children now, and / their thin limbs vein across sand and soil // an offering to the gods – a sacrifice // we sing soft nursery rhymes while we / place water on their raised foreheads / pray this time to sow a better crop.”
Judiciously portioned into well-trimmed servings, Kerry’s interpretation pulls us along in tidy chapters, a riparian flow without traditional titles topping each poetic installment. In a suitable haze, lines blur between anticipatory warning and raw statement of fact. “In the summer of mounting heat / the timber forest so, so dry / when matchstick lightning strikes / our words become water heavy // the sound of retardant bombers / like wasps near the ear are / constant – a relentless prompt / of smoke so thick, it chokes // where do we go from here / surrounded by so much fire / we put our family on a boat / and search for new, new land.”
But with a lupine lunge we’re snatched, deep in the maw, the tale now grisly and all too real. “When Scarlet enrolls in college / she is the first female to do so / in her family, the band members / approve tuition and book allotment / as long as she has progress reports / signed by her instructors each week // Scarlet loves children’s lit / because she is drawn to stories, in- / citing incident, rising action, climax / denouement – open or closed – but / when Wolf has the barrel of his gun / in her mouth and tells her to suck it // for the life of her, she can’t / remember how this one ends.”
Which conjures an unnerving memory, a Vernon night in forest hills as coyotes howled – wolf calls and cries of still fresh prey – along unforgiving highway that Gilbert drives most days, past homeless prophets and makeshift memorials. “But what of the girl in the passenger seat / who isn’t killed on impact when the others are // when she is thrown from the car and flies / over the spot with the man and his sign // where do you stand with jesus christ? / where she lands, plastic flowers are planted.”
While predatorial musk hangs heavy in each suite of verse, optimism remains, resilient. This is not poetry to simply be read. More than inky veins on paper, we feel the warning of elders, vulnerability of experience braided with a mother’s protection – fierce yet unfailingly compassionate. “[S]he lets the image fall to the side / of the highway where a black bear / may sniff it later. she looks back / and gives a reassuring smile // to all of the children.”
Once more I finish this book and am struck by Kerry’s gift, her skill – utterly unique verse – the result of effort and knowing one’s voice. Little Red is indeed a seamless and uniform fable, at times uncomfortably real. I envision a poetry neophyte questioning this flight of compact pieces – a path of polished stepping stones. Are these poems? Is this a story? Are these headlines? The simple answer is yes. Little Red is all of these things, innovative and brave. It’s what I seek out in a book of poetry. That eureka moment when an Artist-and-Repertoire agent says “Yes!” This is new. This is special. The reinvention of an ancient, cautionary tale through contemporary characters, reality and firsthand knowledge. Well done Kerry Gilbert.
(First published by the League of Canadian Poets)
Little Red: New Poems by Kerry Gilbert
Mother Tongue Publishing
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About the Author: Kerry Gilbert lives in Vernon, where she teaches Creative Writing at Okanagan College. Her first book of poetry, (kerplnk): a verse novel of development, was published in 2005 with Kalamalka Press. Her second book of poetry, Tight Wire, was published in 2016 with Mother Tongue Publishing. Gilbert has won the Gwendolyn MacEwan Poetry Award for Best Suite by an Emerging Writer and has been shortlisted for ReLit, for the Ralph Gustafson Prize for the Best Poem, for the Pacific Spirit Poetry Contest and for the Gwendolyn MacEwan Poetry for Best Suite by an Established Writer.