The Discipline of Undressing

by K. Louise Vincent

Review by Patrick M. Pilarski (first published in Other Voices)

"For the wild and gentle dreamers." This dedication opens K. Louise Vincent's powerful and well-crafted new collection of poetry The Discipline of Undressing. Through a series of emotionally charged moments, Vincent does in fact compel us to linger, listen, and dream. While this is reason enough to read her work, one of the defining features of this collection-and the thing that sets it apart from other books of its kind-is Vincent's skillful use of stillness and silence.

Why focus on silence? Silence is delicate, fragile, and often broken when put into words by the hard fingers of a poet. Vincent has a gentle touch; like the artisan in her poem "Zen Life," she reaches into a reservoir of quiet moments, shapes them, and shows how they can in fact be agents of profound connection.

The book itself is divided into six sections, each with its own flavour and style. Vincent's unique and socially engaged voice is evident throughout. The biographical note for her previous collection Hannah and the Holy Fire (Oolichan, 2003) states that Vincent has "devoted many years to social change and alternatives to violence rooted in feminist and non-violence ethics." This background perhaps lends itself to the prevailing authenticity of Vincent's work; while her poems challenge the reader, they remain accessible and resonant.

If there are weaknesses in the collection, they appear when Vincent exchanges her close personal style for a more visible social agenda ("A Fine Line"), or forgoes economy of language in favour of a longer narrative style ("How The Dark Work Started"). Both cases seem to impact the directness of her work, leaving less room for the reader to experience the presented moments. However, these instances are few and far between, and do not detract from the merit of the collection as whole.

Silence as a connection between two people.

Vincent's poem "The Door" is a good example of one of the prevailing images in The Discipline of Undressing: the beautiful, wordless connection between two people:

"The door stood ancient and alive, carved / from an oak tree that could still speak / ... / They let the quietness take them / somewhere before words, snow, oak / were known. ... / It was such a relief that day to stop creating / herself, to simply be and / love the bright silence, see the snow and speak slowly."

Grief also plays a role in a number of these poems, notably in the book's final section "The Henry Poems." When it arrives, grief is wrapped in a kind of calm acceptance and tranquility, as in this passage from "Open Sky":

"We are peaceful, sometimes completely / content ... / We adjust your pillows, / turn pages, each a story / of land and dislocation, of time / when everyone slept under the open sky, / wept secretly in the sweet air."
However, Vincent also presents the harsher side of grief, showing in "Notes From Blue Heron Place" that: "When the heart breaks / there is sanity in something / splintering." Even her more visceral images do not come across as raucous-they simply exist within the stillness, making them all the more profound. This is possibly best represented in "Prayer for Pisces," where the calm of morning softens the potentially shocking image of two children intimately curled together on the narrator's porch.

Silence as a connection between a person and nature.

A valuable aspect of The Discipline of Undressing is the way it connects the inner world of the poet with the outer, natural, world-they are in inexorably linked throughout the book. The vivid natural scenes in Vincent's poems move beyond the purely descriptive and into a place where the natural and human aspects act as mirrors, reflecting each other and presenting new insights into both. We see this in her poem "Swallows":

"The swallows are back, you say / and everything in that moment / has the same spelling: mallard, / love, swallow, spring."

Perhaps this is natural for Vincent: she notes that she is " born in Manitoba where the precambrian shield meets the prairie"; juxtaposition may be in her blood, and it is apparent in her poetry. She presents a natural world made vibrant and charged with emotion. Coupled with her precise use of colour (for example "Meantime" and "Sutra on Yellow"), this makes for a collection of work that invites the reader, as in "Small Planets," to watch and listen to world outside their skin:

"... The moon surprised them, even though / they had converged under the stars, and then / they saw each other, hunched and open, small / planets shining inside dark bodies. That was all / there was, eyes inside dark bodies."

Silence as a connection between a person and their own nature.

"The Lispector Poems" serves as an excellent and visceral example of how stillness and awareness permeate not only a moment, but a life:

"Weather and rooms. She moved through / both. When she stopped she listened to / a silence that had both eyes open."

The attention to detail and chest-tightening content make this section perhaps the most powerful and engaging set of poetry in the entire collection. As made overt in the poem "Night Vision," The Discipline of Undressing is more than just an undressing. It is an "unskinning," with the end result being a methodical and beautiful exposure of the human heart and the soft silence that holds it in place:

"When we go into the dark mud of dreams, / take off the dry skin, there is bleeding, / there is death. ... / ... a newborn seeing / the pulse of its heart everywhere."

It is fitting, then, that the books ends with a "positive emptiness." Through a series of pure and authentic moments, K. Louise Vincent brings us a memorable and undeniably engaging collection of poetry.

Review by Patrick M. Pilarski
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Link: Other Voices

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Patrick M. Pilarski is the co-editor of DailyHaiku, an international print and online journal of contemporary English language haiku. His recent poetry credits include PRISM International, Other Voices, Frogpond (USA), Simply Haiku (USA), and broadcast on CBC Radio One. Patrick recently released his latest chapbook of haiku and haibun, Five Weeks.

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