Review: Eigenheim, by Joanne Epp

Joanne Epp, Eigenheim, (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2015). Paperback, 112 pages, $17.00.

Joanne Epp’s first full-length collection of poetry is unassuming but evocative. It speaks meaningfully of the notions of home and identity and the way in which they are tied not only to each other but to our memories. The “ache of memory” runs through the poems, touching on the past and the future, on birth and death, and on the events—both big and small— that impact our experiences and resonate through our recollections.

Born and raised in a Mennonite community in Saskatchewan but now residing in Winnipeg after several years spent in Ontario, Epp explores “home” as both inescapable and irretrievable. Her poems pulsate with the longing to go beyond the known, to explore what lies “outside the streetlamps,” past “where the road disappears” and, likewise, the desire to return home and retain the familiarity of that known place (“She […] longs to go back / to that place where nothing happened”). Within the voice and memories of Catherine, the central figure of the opening sequence (“Catherine”), Epp establishes the tone of the collection as a whole: the sense of yearning, the questioning of the significance of home, and our precarious sense of identity. Through Catherine, Epp begins to reveal to the reader her own relationship with home. When Catherine returns to her house in “Coming home,” she finds it filled with people whom she does not know—strangers who appear “unsurprised,” “calm,” and “settled” while she herself is “confused” and in “shock.” Catherine’s own sense of identity is unsettled by the loss of her home: “She can’t stop thinking of her name / on the door, and below it the words / she could not untangle.” She “drifts” and “floats” and “sways,” ever aware of the transient nature of human existence, of the fact that people’s names “are all that holds them here.” Once deceased, we “disperse, like dandelion fluff, like feathers in the wind.”

The questions raised by Epp’s poems are at the heart of the human experience: the fear of death (“I don’t want to go to hell”), of not knowing our own selves (“We all look shadowy, blurred around the edges”), of both wishing to explore what lies beyond our reach and fearing losing our sense of what we might leave behind (“Relieved / yet still uneasy […] because she almost went inside’). Touching on the gentle minutiae and quiet faith of Mennonite life on the prairies—God and cornflakes meet across the breakfast table—Epp speaks to a particular way of life and the emotional landscape that exists within it. Her poems have the capacity to be both gently eloquent and at times unsettling, with an undercurrent of fear and the palpable presence of illness (the “swollen windpipe” of “Photo, 1928”) and death in “Railway bridge, 33rd Street” (“She will fall. She knows this.”). Everyday life in all its banality is touched by the tragic—a local girl’s death shakes the town in “Incident in August” —and yet the cucumbers still “need picking” —rural life must carry on. When the conversation of “In the kitchen, afternoon” turns to the loss of an unborn child as the women share a pot of tea, the words that are left unsaid are the most powerful: “She wants to say: / a death is a death.” Meanwhile, after a death from illness in “Thaw,” the unspoken sorrow, “this new emptiness,” of the subsequent poem “Blue napkins” is deeply moving:

‘I’m all right, I say. I fold the napkin,

slip it in my pocket,

out of sight.’

The diminuendo here draws attention to the emotions that are stashed away, felt and unspoken by those who experience them.
Epp’s poems are “but a flicker of memory” but they are a flicker with strength, which speaks to something more universal. The recurring imagery of wind captures this notion of strength in instability, reflecting the uncertain sense of identity with which the poetic voice struggles. One’s sense of self may be at times fragile—it may “drift[…] on a passing downdraft” —but it is strengthened by memories, be they the “memory of a lost photograph” or the postcards which Catherine writes to herself so that she may remember “years from now.” Given the depth of her language and imagery, it may be reductive to compare the message of Epp’s collection to the clichéd notion that “you can’t go home again” (Thomas Wolfe, 1940) but to an extent this is what we take away from Eigenheim: home is “no longer static, but follows us from place to place.” The “Eigenheim” of the collection’s title (the German for “one’s own home”) encapsulates both the familiarity and the peculiarity of the idea of home: “eigen” means not only “own” but also “particular” or “distinct.”

Eigenheim is a debut well worth reading: it makes you ask questions about yourself and your own relationship with home, that peculiar thing. Let these perceptive and arresting poems remind you that home is more than just a physical place, vulnerable to destruction (“That big house down the street […] / bulldozed in a morning”); it is an internal habitation, which exists in the people and places of our memories.
Mabyn Troup Dueck grew up in London, England, and moved to Winnipeg in 2012. She holds a BA and a Master of Studies in Modern Languages and Literature from the University of Oxford. She loves to travel, bake, read, cycle, and write.