Le Dressay’s subtle poetry a delight

Anne Le Dressay will read from her latest book of poetry, Positions of the Soul, on November 14 at Octopus Books. Photo: courtesy of A. Le Dressay

Positions of the Soul, by Anne Le Dressay.

Reviewed by Mary Lee Bragg

Glebe writer Anne Le Dressay has published her long-awaited fifth volume of poetry, Positions of the Soul. She will be reading from her work at Abbotsford House and Octopus Books over the next several weeks.

Le Dressay has lived in Ottawa intermittently since the 1970s, when she moved here from Manitoba to complete an M.A. at Carleton University. She stayed to do a PhD at the University of Ottawa, then returned to western Canada and her teaching career. Armed with advanced degrees, she left elementary and secondary students behind and taught for 10 years at colleges in Edmonton and Camrose, Alberta.

When teaching jobs proved impermanent, Le Dressay returned to Ottawa to her favourite neighbourhood and to the circle of friends she had made as a graduate student. She also found a second career in the Public Service Commission from which she is now retired.

Positions of the Soul selects poems from previous collections and adds a sizable section of new work. The selected poems are in chronological order, from “This Body That I Live In” (1979) through “Old Winter” (2007). Here the reader can see Le Dressay developing a flexible poetic narrative that stays close to the writer’s experience.

In the first poem in the book “The Window Washer,” the writer returns from lunch to find a window washer standing on her desk:

I tried to pretend he wasn’t there,
as he seemed to know I wasn’t,
but his work being real, mine not
(I who leafed a pocketbook uneasily),
I could not ignore him.

The image of the poet disappearing in her environment recurs in several of the earlier poems. In “Painting Black,” she imagines painting the world and herself black: “I will make myself / thinner than a line, / more pliant than vines, and with / draw.” In “I Grow Familiar,” she foresees the fate of her bones: “When I disintegrate / they will sing white praises / into the roots of the trees.”

This image of the annihilated self is absent from later poems, where Le Dressay focuses on the world around her and finds that it rewards her interest. “In My Cool, Cool Basement Apartment” could be read as praise for housing in the Glebe but is primarily a humorous take on sharing accommodations with other living creatures: “Spiders have been fruitful and their progeny / have no enemy but their own numbers.” Everything in the apartment that does not move is attached to everything else with invisible filaments, and the writer fears that she will wake, like Gulliver, “staked to the bed by multitudinous / silken cords while busy weavers bind me / tighter, closer, connecting me finally, visibly, / irrevocably to everything I own.”

Le Dressay’s newest poems are gathered in two sections in the latter half of the book, “Positions of the Soul” and “Handwritten.”  Here we find “The Dog at the Parade,” the most interested of all spectators and the watching poet: “The dog watches the parade, / (It’s not really much of a parade.) / I watch the dog.”

The final section of the book, “Handwritten,” is a selection of much shorter, sharper works that Le Dressay wrote during a year-long experiment to write a poem a day. The observations ring true, as in “4 a.m.” which reads in its entirety:

The birds are awake.

So am I,
though less inclined

to sing.

Throughout the book, Le Dressay’s poetry is infused with spirituality, sometimes explicitly Christian, as in a meditation on sloth and lust in “Jesus in India,” but always aware of the wonders of a world beyond human comprehension. In one poem, she speaks of “Praying in Fat Albert’s.” In another, she contemplates a prayer book which she inherited from her father. The book is bilingual, in Latin and in Breton, a language she does not speak.

The language LeDressay does speak is poetry. In her work, umbrellas “repel the sky” and a spider “complicates its web.” Her subtle observations and precise language make this book a delight to read.

Le Dressay has shifted her focus to writing memoir, which she teaches at Abbotsford House. She will be reading from Positions of the Soul at Octopus Books at 116 Third Avenue on Thursday, November 14, 7–9 p.m. She will be joined by two other poets: Robert Hogg and Michèle Vinet, who will also read from recently-published work.

Mary Lee Bragg lives in Old Ottawa South. She has published a novel, Shooting Angels, and three collections of poetry. Her most recent book is The Landscape That Isn’t There.

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