Diane Driedger, Red with Living: Poems and Art (Toronto: Inanna Publications and Education Inc., 2016). Paperback, 96 pages, $18.95.
Red with Living, Diane Driedger’s second poetry collection after Mennonite Madonna in 2000 is a personal journal comprised of poems and paintings set in the Caribbean and Canada, places the poet has lived, with detours to Ukraine, where she has travelled. These poems are not, however, primarily about place; front and centre in this work is the poet’s exploration of what it means to live as an embodied being, capable of experiencing both physical pleasure and physical pain.
Driedger, assistant professor in disability studies at the University of Manitoba and former provincial coordinator of the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities (2010–2013), writes out of experience: she has lived with both cancer and chronic illness.
Seen through the poet’s eye, Trinidad is a place of fecundity, teeming with colour and motion. Orchids bloom: yellow-brown-purple; mockingbird and kiskadee battle over bananas; garbage may yield a sequined bustier; careening traffic raises black clouds; sirens scream; steel drums punctuate “Trinidad’s success / oil boom / business boom / beach boom.”
This vitality comes to a climax when the narrator plunges joyfully into the spirit of carnival. She “sail[s] / behind a steel band” and celebrates her “bumsey,” which in Trinidad is admired while in Canada she would be expected to “cover that thing up.” Wearing a festival costume, she boldly declares:
I am a devil
mashing down the place
as Trinidadians say
with my forked tail
But when the body that dances during festival comes under attack, its vulnerability is quickly revealed, and the scene shifts to Canada where cancer treatment is available. Driedger acknowledges and describes this part of her journey with candour and without sentimentality. The imagery can be forceful: a cabinet full of pills becomes “an arms build up”; radiation is “a long crucifixion.” Such metaphors are reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s assertion that descriptions of cancer tend to draw on language of war.
“Hair” is a matter-of-fact description of shopping for a wig, post-chemo. In “Not Coming Back,” the narrator mourns a friend in Trinidad who did not survive while she, in Canada, had good medical treatment.
The poet’s medical history is reflected vividly in two of the many watercolours interspersed with the poems throughout the book. “Self-Portrait with Bandaged Breast” and “Crucifixion” unabashedly declare the narrator’s refusal to flinch from ravages inflicted on the human body by cancer, chemo, and radiation. These paintings become all the more poignant when viewed in juxtaposition to Driedger’s colourful and cheerful portrayals of carnival life in Trinidad.
While Driedger references Renoir, who painted despite arthritis, and van Gogh, with his famously bandaged ear, she identifies most closely with Frida Kahlo, who also lived and painted while suffering ongoing pain, the long term effects of an accident. This identification becomes focused not only in the two water colours mentioned above, but also in one of the stronger pieces in the collection, a prose poem titled “Frida Kahlo and Me.” Here she addresses the Mexican artist as sister, stating: “Your bed is my bed, your paintings wash over me.” While acknowledging the influence of Kahlo’s work—“nails riddling the flesh”—Driedger claims her individuality in making choices in life and art: “My brush now paints little flowers indolent with colour avoiding red or the lightning flash of firing neurons my pain ting.”
Driedger’s ongoing interest in her Mennonite heritage is evident in poems about her travels to Ukraine, a country “red with my ancestors / living loving leaving,” a country from which she returns to Canada “red with rage.” She pays tribute to an aunt who “sings fear / away,” when her pacifist family is threatened in Russia, and to her Grandmother from whom she “learned about love while picking raspberries.”
The simplicity and clarity of these poems appealed to me. Driedger’s approach to her subject is direct, relying largely on imagery, description, and statement, less on reflection and nuance. Occasionally, I found the poems too thin, with too much left out, and wished the author had lingered with the text, reached for more depth in the exploration of embodied living.
I was left with a sense that, for this poet, individual choice remains possible, not only in joyful times, but also in the face of acute or chronic illness. The final illustration in the book, a cheerful watercolour titled “Self-Portrait as the Bluebird of Happiness in a Maud Lewis Painting,” demonstrates the poet’s choice to live with hope.
This attitude of intentional hopefulness is reiterated in “I have a dream,” one of the last poems in the book:
my mind is a lightning flash
away from the body
how will the two work together
I will find my way
and this leap
will be flying
Readers will appreciate and enjoy Diane Driedger’s cheerful and positive determination.
Sarah Klassen continues to read and write in Winnipeg. Her most recent publications are: The Wittenbergs (2013), a novel, and Monstrance (2012), a poetry collection.