Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We’re Dead: New and Selected Poems by Catherine Graham

To situate Catherine Graham’s New and Selected Poems, I begin with two prepositions – “around” and “between” – the former from her title, Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We’re Dead; the latter from the book’s epigraph, “There is more than glass between the snow and huge roses.” On any number of levels Graham is a poet who explores the world around us, as well as in-between states, and her dialectic of flint and fire results in passionate lyrics, profound observation, and startling insights. The book’s epigraph from Louis MacNeice’s “Snow” focusses on a surplus beyond “between,” while Graham’s “around” investigates microscopic aspects of orchids and hummingbirds pictured on the book’s cover. She writes between MacNeice’s metaphors and around a world inhabited by the flora and fauna that penetrate, pulsate, and soar.

“On any number of levels Graham is a poet who explores the world around us, as well as in-between states, and her dialectic of flint and fire results in passionate lyrics, profound observation, and startling insights.”

            The imperative impulse in the titular poem – “Put” and “Pretend” – surrounds the reader from concrete flowers to an ambush of imagined death. Her surrounding garland startles as Graham advances stealthily through her triplet stanzas: “The moon arcs – in and out, playing form. / Stars wrap our fate while intruder dreams / signal: come back. They hold our stability with quickened steps.” The spectral moon in this dreamscape moves in and out – in to the intruder, and out later in the poem when “roots shoot out.” Playing form pertains not only to the lunar, but also to the literary in a poem that signals an oneiric as well as a poetic return. This uncanny “come back” destabilizes our fate and formal structure of story, page, and sentence. Graham’s “sun / plays hide-and-seek,” as do her moods and constellations of meaning. 

            The imperative continues in the second stanza’s return to earth: “Stand where grass weaves basket strands, make / the centre heave, the pinched earth speak, / before thoughts erase and we have no names.” These lines are woven through caesuras where strands echo the opening stand, and “make” moves forward to the second comma, while “heave” and “speak” are arrested in their caesuras. The third line is finely balanced around “and” to ease the erasure. The third stanza begins with a strong beat: “Fixed on the busy you miss the owl-winter, the who-cold / crizzling lake.” Strong sibilance gives way to harder k sounds, while multiple nuances of “fixed” accumulate from fixated to repair. Hyphenated pairings combine seasons and birds, the owl’s onomatopoeia absorbed in the crizzling lake. Crizzling addresses MacNeice’s glass, and its instability picks up the earlier stability and other blemishes. “Raindrops inside snowdrops” also echo MacNeice’s snow, while “inside” repeats the in and out of the moon’s arc. “Shoes” in the third line point backwards to earlier steps, while “speak” repeats speak in the second stanza. “When our shoes sprout hello-flowers, cold lips pucker, speak – .“ “Who-cold” and cold lips set up the open-ended “speak” – that continues in the rest of the poem. 

            “What to do but follow this thread?” The thread of thought traces the sounds and images, the transformation of metaphors. “Wind circular words / to chain our necks.” Words circle back and forth in Graham’s embracing necklace: “A necklace without clasps / means another light’s not listening.” Gliding through sentences with dual meanings, synaesthesia alliterates and surrounds us in all-encompassing stanzas. “To think story is to construct from that other realm / where jade water cools fire’s friction. Pockets where pleasure finds memory. / Take this nosegay, touch intuition, before we float off the page.” After her floating meta-poetic

signifiers, we follow Graham’s bouquet to her next stanza: “Now go past sentence. Air-sheets shatter – absorbed / by grasses and creatures scurrying there. / Viral green points down, we watch the swarm.” Like the crizzling lake, the air and earth are diseased, the woven grass absorbed by viral green points.

            Another bird appears in the next stanza: “Swan’s neck quickens to question – her wings, / snow-blinding flaps / Nest birds have it – twiggy cup to sink into / after cracking. The rub that brought forth twine and twig weaves the cradle.” Rhythm and form combine to imitate the swan whose neck belongs in the established chain, whose way flaps to MacNeice’s “Snow,” and whose rub weaves the earlier basket. The twig rubs against the Irish ancestry of MacNeice and Yeats.

            Flora and fauna suffuse Graham’s poetry from hatched bird to seed, bloom, roots, leaf, and petal. Silence rearranges sound and is a kind of flight. She employs a number of declarative statements, such as “Unravelling defies gravity” and “Repetition renews.” By the end she visits railroad tracks, “—eggs disguised as stones.” The old stars return “past evening, past waiting — / Enough! Never enough, until pulled to flight or sleep. / And a dog bounds helplessly wet for a tossed stick he cannot find.” The contra-diction of “never enough” and the flight of silence surround the dog whose wet quest is “moist with dew from the wormfield.” All of Graham’s creatures bound and scurry from the page between lines and around the sounds of stanzas.

“Graham’s other realms explore the subconscious, dreamscapes of hush and hint, haunt of silence and sounds, surreal metaphors in nature, friction igniting fiction, and vice versa.”

            The image of jade water cooling fire’s friction recurs in another poem, “The Hush,” only slightly modified with shorter lines and a Freudian slip from friction to fiction: “Lovers, / from that other realm / where jade water / cool’s fire’s fiction.” In the first poem the “other realm” follows “story” – hence a possible fiction; in the second, it follows memory and lovers – hence the Freudian slip of friction and Wallace Stevens’s supreme fiction. Graham’s other realms explore the subconscious, dreamscapes of hush and hint, haunt of silence and sounds, surreal metaphors in nature, friction igniting fiction, and vice versa. The moon’s arc intersects her narrative arc.

            The book’s dark cover foreshadows mysteries that lurk in the mind, in nature, and in mythology. While the moon arcs, stars wisp, and it is no coincidence that the first poem in the book, “Consider the Scythian Lamb,” contains a star in the etymology of “consider,” for each poem is a consideration of its subject. The mind’s picture is reinforced by the sounds in the title that imitate the closing and opening of the flower. She begins with mythical creatures – hippogryph, yeti, and elf – before considering the “Scythian Lamb” in the third stanza: “Seed breaks through, roots / stalk her slow crawl.” From her first collection, Pupa, she demonstrates her interest in that intermediate state between larva and mature insect. That developmental process is repeated in the emergence of the Scythian Lamb’s slow crawl “into green networks”: “ – out crawls a lamb — / hooves made of parted hair.” We may reason and consider, but our faculties are startled by metamorphosis – double dashes of delivery, and the final association of heavy hooves lightened by hair rhymed with the earlier “nourishing air.” Graham considers birth pangs of pain and pleasure. 

            The other realm of mythology appears in “Horse of Cerberus,” which examines the three-headed creature in different forms of three: “My three-headed prayer / falls flat on its face.” Opening iambic rhythms reinforce alliterated f’s, while two-metred lines incorporate “three” throughout the poem. The falling prayer continues with the second stanza’s drop: “The three hills I slide down / can’t escape my shape.” Graham’s poetry is one of shapes and shaping, as she carves landscapes and creatures, quarries and garden beds. The downward direction towards Hades is upended in the third stanza’s “a horse with three heads — / two sprout from my neck.” Graham often focusses on necks and necklaces – intermediate space between mind and body. The initial prayer turns to song: “Look hard enough, the edge / cracks into three songs.” A hard look cracks into three songs, as the equine-poet frets around edges and enjambment before a metamorphosis into song. The sound intensifies in miniature crickets, which are “tinny” instead of tiny: “Three tinny crickets / sing the dead back to us.” After insects that summon the dead, the final stanza opens to light and radiant metaphor: “and the oyster of the sun / steals three pearls from the moon.”  Her metaphoric mind cracks the cosmos in the solar oyster and lunar pearls.

            Three tinny crickets morph into tiny crystals in the next poem, “If Tiny Crystals Form Close to the Earth’s Surface They Form Diamond Dust.” This exceptionally long title stands in stark contrast to the shorter lines in the poem itself. Graham’s range extends from tiny to elongated significance, from clipped flint to phantasmagoric conflagration. “My antler heart grows hooves.” This opening line expands metaphorically in a branching out of meaning. An antlered and hooved heart would grow in an imaginary celery forest, but these metaphoric growths are also indicative of cells or organs that are out of place in the body. Migrating cells and tissue are medically heterotopic and characteristic of cancer that is featured in Graham’s poetry. This migrating metaphor completes the first stanza: “I follow the footprints of the pack. / Find shelter in a drunken forest –.” In the move from singular to plural, the place also becomes heterotopic and out of control, for in a drunken forest, “what species isn’t at risk.” Within ecological threat, some comfort is found in the insulating properties of snow and exchange of heat between body and earth. But the final stanza unsettles that calm: “It’s not the hare’s scream / that haunts, / it’s the antecedent silence.” The space and sound between silence and scream haunts her celery forest. 

            “Star” also unfolds between singular and plural in reversals that surprise: “They don’t notice one iris / carries an unbalanced green.” The poet balances flower, eye, and star in her green and blue palette where telescope and radioscope interchange. That delicate balance between “filling / light” and “dark nights” carries through to the end “with such weight, a heavy task / for such a fine-boned thing.” The lyric’s fragile grief is embodied in light and weighty stanzas. “Blue Edges” pursues the stars in longer lines: “I took my love for him through burrs in the field, sticky porcupine stars.” The line progresses through a field of obstacles, onomatopoeic and synaesthetic burrs that impede in the sounds of the sticky porcupine star — another pause after the caesura. The lovers pause again in the third line: “We tasted salt in air, in each other’s need.” Earthy and ethereal, she edges her love: “Cakes of light silenced across, our hands moving boundaries.” Dolls, devils, and dreams weave through the three stanzas until the end: “a cage around my neck where stars belie whole moons. / An ocean, a quarry – what we can’t contain.” Graham’s verse mediates between a container and its contents from necklace to quarries that overflow with experience, while stars bear witness to the cosmic and cosmetic. 

            “The Drifting Experience” is one of her shortest poems, which pinpoints impressionistic music, metaphor, and invisibility: “We carry mystery as a gift. Cloud-along / a tail of soft fog, the scent of this or that.” Tight internal rhyme, alliteration, and startling verb forms carry the lines of mystery in the hyphenated moving stillness of “cloud-along.” The interface between the motion of the cloud and its covering highlights its drifting and mystery. This drift is arrested in the single line of the second stanza with its apostrophe of epiphany, followed by a questioning: “A star of horns! Or are they antlers?” The drift of senses, meaning, metaphor, and heterotopia spans cosmic and animal bodies. Horns sound and hush: “More woodland souls / sprout green from our wounds.” Graham’s celery forest is metaphoric and metamorphic, a container of mythic creatures that drift, luxuriate, falter, fall, and rise. In five short lines the poet covers the vastness of a wounded universe;  drift carries mind and senses across transformations from dormant states to full flight. 

            Moths, mouthing bird, ghost apples, Cassandra, Medusa, wildflowers, groundhog, and roses – all belong within Graham’s wide-ranging oeuvre. “The Many-Eyed Cloud” concludes with: “we’re as layered / as paper and don’t know how to fold.” Her layered lyrics are rhapsodic and elegiac, leaping between moods and tones. “Recurrence,” the final poem, recapitulates earlier themes and images: “Return to the Celery Forest. Accept the changes / in your sleep, unbroken dreams from the dead.” The Celery Forest is a Freudian and Jungian place of otherness and oneiric possibilities filled with disturbances and solace. She hovers over a dialogue between sofa and chair, as surreal metaphors awaken the mundane. The poem ends and recurs, cycling to the Uncanny: “This hurts and it’s meant to, the quest of a final score. / Rain Brailles the window. I’ll need a lifetime to read” — the pain and silence in her final score of years of sound in a celestial forest voiced and attuned to blue syllables. A hummingbird hovers around a flower shrouded in mist among metaphors planted and uprooted. The Celery Forest contains “MRI” and “Winterhill” (after “Winterkill”) – “a threshold of in-between.”

            Winged and wounded, her birds, insects, and flowers morph from rooms to forests. Cancerous seeds “land on the celery trees,” and the poet counters this invasiveness: “she coils lightning into the double helix of herself.” When her DNA threatens to unravel, she musters the strength of language. In “Waiting for the Diagnosis” heterotopia appears in the Haliburton Forest and in Eden, announced by a scream: “An animal – somewhere — / inside another animal’s throat.” Migrating cells, seeds, and animals participate in the body’s and place’s metastasis. Graham confronts her cancer through writing, her metaphoric mind creating metaphoric strategies.

            Like Alice in Wonderland, Graham imagines a small girl in an oversized celery forest inhabited by birds that witness and participate in her looking-glass predicament. By rearranging proportions, she fights her diagnosis. “Beside the White Chickens” uses four short couplets to cope with her cancer: “I have released the white chickens. / They are roaming on the moon.” To release these birds is to liberate her emotions, to banish them to a distant lunar world. “They flurry past large doorways — / a release of matryoshka dolls.” She surrealizes her condition where the chickens may be miniaturized as body cells or enlarged to outsized regions; her focus oscillates between microscope and telescope, as she navigates through her looking-glass. Nesting dolls are X-ray images within her own body, metaphors within metaphors “holding chickens within chickens, / waiting to be hatched — .” From tiny cells to celery forest, these fraught containers release their contents “to extend the red feeling, / to retract the red feeling.” Blood contrasts with the green of forest, while extension and retraction of emotion chart the course and rhythms of her condition. “She circles within the Celery Forest / as if it were a cage,” trying to fit in a new universe that is disproportionate. 

            “Deciduous” begins with leaves that dry out and become castanets, measured in metaphors like “tethered birds.” Leaves curl, “abandoned nests in plain sight.” Birds and leaves in the Celery Forest reside beside the hospital – another heterotopia that overlaps with the sylvan “plain sight”: “I see them everywhere after the diagnosis. / Black knots in X-rays – first / discovered by a circling hand.” “Deciduous” moves from the fall of starlings to a diagnosis of emptiness to a fullness in flight: “They stay high in the air, waiting / for breasts that never come back.” Empty nests are refilled by metaphors, a therapeutic poetry of proportion. “Red Eye Vireo” tries to locate the hidden bird “among summer leaves, though I hear your song.” Graham examines the leaves of her celery forest and listens to the “incessant song” of the vireo that is both menacing and cathartic. While the unseen bird scans “the canopy for caterpillar prey,” the hospital machines scan her body for unseen cells and the sounds of creatures, dis-ease, and machinery. 

            “MRI” in The Celery Forest examines a “long, fibrous stalk” – at once a stalk of celery, a part of anatomy, and a stalking of unwelcome cells. While the machine measures the unseen, the poem registers rhythms in sync and in opposition: “Magnets. Pinnate to bipinnate with rhombic leaflets.” She hammers home meanings, as “tapering … leaves” turn to rhombic leaflets in the “celery’s … cleansing tonic.” Thus, the “Contrast material running through your veins” is the metaphoric flow that transcends medical imaging. Cellular seeds are contained within the celery forest’s seeds of imagination. Juxtaposed with the neck and spine are running lines that unfold and multiply meaning: “A ghost / is a fold in a slip of mind, frantic / nut of contagion.” “Glass Animals” returns to MacNeice’s glass through their “loud roar” that resides in her room: “Air can’t split them open. / Glass animals know this.” Graham’s looking-glass animals break the sound barriers of silence, “bars and gates.” In “Shrike” she lists the locations of tumours – liver, pancreas, uterus, earlobe, breast – and implores the bird to “devour our cancers.” Flight patterns within The Celery Forest emphasize the heterotopic nature of spreading tumours and “discarded body parts.” 

A photograph of Catherine Graham, poet and novelist.

Catherine Graham is an award-winning poet, novelist and creative writing instructor. Æther: An Out-of-Body Lyric won the Canadian Authors Association’s Fred Kerner Book Award and was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award and the Toronto Book Award, while her sixth collection of poems, The Celery Forest, was named a CBC Best Book of the Year and was a finalist for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry. A previous winner of the Toronto International Festival of Authors’ Poetry NOW, she leads its monthly book club, interviews for By the Lake Book Club, co-hosts The Hummingbird Podcast and teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies where she won an Excellence in Teaching Award. Author of The Most Cunning Heart and the award-winning novel Quarry, she has been a finalist for the Sarton Book Award, the Montreal International Poetry Prize and has won the Miramichi Reader Award for Best Fiction and an IPPY Gold Medal for Fiction.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Buckrider Books (April 18 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 172 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1989496636
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1989496633

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.