Published by Aeolus House, September 2022
“Shadows Sharp as Teeth”: A Brief Review of Felicity Sidnell Reid’s The Many Faces
by Antony Di Nardo
“My mother,” writes Felicity Sidnell Reid, “tamped the radio / to a whisper … / her ear resting on the woven panel / of the radio, perched on the bookcase like a pigeon, / bringing her the world.” Those lines, like many of the poems in Many Faces, evoke a distant, yet familiar time and place, where the quotidian facts of life reveal themselves in simple gestures, essential moments. Listening is important to this poet, listening and connecting to the world. And the act of listening is effectively translated into narratives and imagery that record the passing of time and tell of how, with the right words, time can anchor memories that render life meaningful and relevant. In her hands, language lives up to its claim that experience can not only be described but enriched by the very language that speaks it.
Description is the art of compression and, in these poems, an entire universe of feelings, memories and heartfelt observations, someone’s life complete, has been compressed into a nutshell. The poems are dipped in narratives and tell stories framed by anecdotes, images, details and rubrics of an age that gave us the present, and in this present the voice of a poet that re-enacts the past with imagery polished to a patina that’s tangible and accessible.
Sidnell Reid’s poetry can be both sparse in its precision and ample for its attention to detail, details that do not shy away from the sonic and rhythmic qualities of her syntax:
In the moment between visiting
and coming home, planes drift
to ground. Later light slices
the walls of Mother’s house
into peaceful patterns.
Night sinks silent, as morning
hums. A milkman’s cart
rises with the day.
Footsteps, clinking glass,
damp bushes rustle, snap.
(from “At My Mother’s House”)
There is a painter at work in this poem, a painter who loves the sound her paintbrush makes. In yet another, she dips her brush in moonlight and describes the moon as “paper light as tissue.” In “Waterfall,” a tale of near-tragedy and bravado, “paddles pink the lake”; in “Wolf Moon” “shadows sharp as teeth” are cast across the page and contrast with “its early morning beams.”
Seamus Heaney and W.H. Auden are present in this book, the ghosts of both these poets hovering over many of these lines. In her poem “Limbo,” Heaney actually makes a cameo appearance. We’re told that “When Seamus Heaney came to lunch … I cooked him fish” and then the speaker proceeds to tell the mournful tale of a still birth. There is controlled pathos in these lines, the kind of control one expects with every line this poet writes.
In one of the strongest pieces in this collection, “The Lookout,” a sweeping lyric that embraces nature’s resilience despite the menace of our footprint on a planet now redolent with “issues of the Anthropocene that stiffen our tongue / thicken our speech,” Sidnell Reid cautions the reader on the fragility of our Earth. Her language is so robust and engaged that it seems to defy our own ignorance when it comes to the impact we are having as homo-industrialist. The poem concludes with this gorgeous, yet ironic, line: “And, for now, the skies over Beijing blossom blue.”
Felicity Sidnell Reid has given us something to think about in Many Faces—poems that compress time and place into compact narratives that rejoice in the precision of language, and poems that revel in description of both the past and present. If Sidnell Reid were a painter, trading the imagery of language for a set of brushes, many of these poems would be watercolours: delicate, yet precise; bold and bright, but always sensitive to light and shadows.
An abridged version of this review was published in Devour: Art and Lit, January 2023
What strikes the reader about Sidnell Reid’s poetry is not simply the stories told, but the poet’s inexplicable capacity to render a universe of sensuous, affecting detail into one small poem, beguiling stanza, sharp line. Her precision is hidden within the theatre of story, but in fact, every word is the Chosen One. Shadow is expansive in its complexity, birds convey meaning far beyond mere flight and song, and old dogs maintain the gravity of noble, mythic companion. One concludes this collection with the sense of Sidnell Reid’s rapt, acute powers of observation—her loyalty to clarity, wherein no small movement is taken for granted and not one “square of light” escapes the eye. This is Sidnell Reid’s trick of time: every memory exists in the present moment; every recollection a conjuring of the senses so that the ringing of the bells, the grunting of the bear and the fall of water upon rock happens both historically and immediately—in this moment—fresh and deeply alive in the telling.
Pre-publication review by Meredith Katie Hoogendam, poet and author of Mother Tongue, Spring Thaw and Materials At Hand
The Many Faces Review by Meg Freer
Felicity Sidnell Reid
Aeolus House, 2022, 93 pp. ISBN: 9781987872453
The 58 poems in this second poetry collection by Felicity Sidnell Reid draw their inspiration in part from childhood memories, phrases in old notebooks, as well as current news events. The book is divided into four sections, each named for a poem in that section; the book’s title comes from the title of the final poem, The Many Faces of Blue. The narrative syntax throughout is highly readable, prose-like in places, and effective for telling the stories the author presents. Sometimes in a single line a deliberately casual style is combined with more lyrical language: gawping at splotches of operatic trees (Shutting up the Cottage). In many poems, the imagery is beautifully poetic and draws the reader into the scene, as in the opening of Morning Fog:
Fogged morning / thickening against a rock face, / flutters in mouths and hollows, / breathes corridors / over the still dark water, / touching me – cold at my feet.
Equally lovely imagery appears at the end of New Year’s Day in the City:
Snow spumes fly from bare lilac bushes, / while quietly old and young / take possession of the day, / finding in sunny, soundless streets / a fragile kingdom.
Section one, At My Mother’s House, in which fractured times lie just ahead (The Broken Bubble), explores memories of childhood and early adulthood by means of a metaphorical long embrace (The Long Embrace) of the author’s upbringing and her family’s aging relatives. Her writing shows her talent for savouring the unrepeatable moment (The Gift of Spices), and there are several tribute poems, such as Love and Duty in Times of War and Pandemics which recognizes women’s labour. The section ends with a moving memorial for her sister.
Section two, Wolf Moon, explores seasonal themes of nature and the outdoors set against the early days of winter’s joyful paralysis (First Snow). The reader is encouraged throughout this book to stop … wait … breathe (A Necessary Patience), to notice how [w]e flick through landscapes (Shutting up the Cottage). The poems in this section showcase the author’s talent for detailed observation.
Section three, The Passing Bell, contains poems that are slightly more cynical and analytical, poems that reflect on the way our world lurches, reels and bumps (The Dilemma). They deal with changes in the world, life’s uncertainties and journeys, and offer meditations and comments on present moments, types of people, and historical anecdotes. Several poems (Shadows of Birds, The Passing Bell, They Say –, A Modern Journey) read like song lyrics and could be set effectively to music.
The final section is titled Listen, Listen, Look. Its title poem muses on the frailty of existence as seen through seasonal changes in a stream. Many poems contain messages of imminent loss and the isolation of pandemic times. We are reminded to counteract human greed and consumption by paying attention to the earth and its own messages to us—by observing nasturtiums, an aging buck, animal behaviour, or by walking barefoot in summer (The Forest Path):
But doe and woods need no legends. / On those who pay attention, / they cast their own enchantment.
The final poem, The Many Faces of Blue, reflects on the word “blue”: blue moon, winter blues, the night sky, spring flowers, water. Throughout this well-crafted book, all the way to this last poem, the reader is made aware of the edges of living. To order your signed copy, send $25 ($20 + $5 p&h) or send an etransfer payable to Felicity Sidnell, 21 Parliament St., Colborne, Ontario K0K 1S0.
First published in TOPS The Ontario Poetry Society’s biannual publication Verse Afire, edited by Bunny Iskov