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Phyllis Webb.

Vancouver, Talon-books, c1982.
160pp, paper, $6.95.
ISBN 0-88922-202-9.

Reviewed by Sister Anne Leonard.

Volume 11 Number 6.
1983 November.

The Vision Tree is a new selection of Phyllis Webb that includes material from 1954-1982. The earlier poems of the fifties and first half of the sixties are more traditional in rhythm and imagery; Webb's manner changes, becoming more experimental and private.

What is particularly satisfying about this publication is the information provided. The back cover has a short biographical blurb highlighting the poetic career of Phyllis Webb. Then there is a very scholarly introduction by Sharon Thesen in which she discusses the poetic devices, design, and style of the poet. Without her analysis of The Vision Tree, much would be missed in the understanding of Webb's poetry. Thesen explains that "in the shamanic religions of the peoples of north-eastern Europe, northern and central Asia and the Americas, the world is imagined as structured around a great central tree." The poet is like the Shaman, a spiritual seer of visions, a Daniel. The tree and the bowl are recurrent images for the sacred; both are sources of life with fixed and eternal centres. In the poem "From Even Your Right Eye," Phyllis Webb expresses the work of the poet: it is "like a monk in meditation/. . .cloaked in sheer/profundities of otherness." There is a certain stripping of the heart that must precede being clothed in the raiment of otherness. In her poem "Marvel's Garden," she pursues this thought, saying it is not enough to withdraw into the garden, the place of solitude, because to do so means "leaving brothers, lovers, Christ/outside my walls/ where they have wept without/and I within."

There is a quiet intensity about Phyllis Webb's poetry. She calls us to be still and look at what she sees. In the "Old Woman," for example, repetition in each of the four stanzas has this element of focusing and so of entering into a life that has crumbled "with nothing to clutch, only her fear/that sleeps at her throat like her ghostly beloved. "Nakedness, nothingness, emptiness are important concepts. In "Sitting," the poet speaks of receiving fire and in this position of sitting perfectly still, one is "only/remotely human."

At the end of the selection there are "Notes to the Poems," which elucidate some of the symbols. Webb's interest in petroglyphs, Indian mythology, the Persian form known as the Ghazal, and her wide reading have influenced her writing, and the notes clarify references, images and experiments in form. Finally there is a short, well-developed biography. Here, there is a quotation from Webb's own foreword to Wilson's Bowl (1980), a good selection of which is included in The Vision Tree, that throws light on that quiet intensity that characterizes much of her writing:

         My poems are born out of great
         struggles of silence. This book
         has been long in coming. Wayward,
         natural and unnatural silences, my
         desire for privacy, my critical hesitations,
         my critical wounds, my dissatisfaction
         with myself and the work have all contributed
         to a strange gestation.

In turn, one needs to come to the poems in The Vision Tree after having experienced "great struggles of silence." While most of Phyllis Webb's poems are demanding, calling the reader to be still and to penetrate their secret, some are direct and could certainly be appreciated by students at the senior level. It would, for example, be worthwhile to read "Marvel's Garden" after reading Andrew Marvel's own poem on "The Garden" or to identify with Alex that four-year-old who drew a picture of you or to read the portrait poems after one has become familiar with the lives of these people. Webb's poems are like a meditation: very still and very alert to the rhythm of life. At times they are visionary, intense, and imagistic, as the poet struggles with her role to be messenger and interpreter.

Sister Anne Leonard, Religious of the Sacred Heart, Montreal, QC.
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