Guernica Editions, 2020
You know from the start, when you begin reading Conyer Clayton’s debut book of poems, We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite, that this will be a ‘one-two punch’ kind of collection. It begins with “Seeds,” a poem that bursts out on the first page with the emphatic confessional declaration “I pray to catch on fire,/to get caught up/in a mercifully/lightening storm,//burn my body back/to earth.” Right away, the tone has been set. Here is a voice that longs for transformation, even if it means destruction first. Here is a phoenix coming up from the ashes.
Clayton doesn’t flinch or turn away from the most difficult moments in life. The notion of illusion and reality threads itself throughout her work. In “Blackout,” she suggests that maybe “if we hang/enough butterflies on invisible strings/we’ll enjoy it here, be fooled//into a smile by bright colours/and a song on repeat.” Who hasn’t felt that before, when you realize that you wish you could just imagine easier things into being? In “Recoil,” she speaks to how domestic abusers often hide in plain sight. From the outside, a house and its ‘perfect family’ can seem calm, but on the inside, a person living inside it can observe the almost-to-be-expected “continual stings,/[of]his hand on her.” Nothing is as it seems.
What this poet excels at, though, is the way she so creatively fashions her images and lines. The images are uniquely crafted, so you get little beauties like “feet blackened like catfish/on the flat tar roof,” a shawl that’s “stitched with longing,” crickets that “bellow that time turns/over,” and parasols that spin “around dizzied heads,/beckon you to my bed.” Her lines dance on the page in thought provoking ways. Her use of enjambment and white space is innovative, so that you almost get a sense of poetic waves—and waves of breath, too—as you read through the collection.
There is loss, as well, in this book of poems. In the heartrending “Full Sunlight,” the death of a mother is paralleled to the cutting down of a two hundred year old tree. As the tree plummets to the ground, the woman’s body is removed from the house. The speaker watches: “I stand engulfed by a hollow stump,/full sunlight streaming through my windows.” Here is a nod to the power of lineage—to a literal and metaphorical family tree—and to how it always seems that endings are quickly transformed into new beginnings, even though they’re often painful.
In “What You Actually Lost,” the speaker tells of the time they’ve “run cemetery paths casually/and been scolded by a woman/sitting at her dead husband’s grave.” In “Swallow the Seeds,” the final stanza encourages the reader to “Feel death,/but in this way: poured/over firmly potted orchids.” You find yourself, as a close reader of the poetry, caught up in a gathering of work that asks you to try to feel more deeply, even if it upends your world. It’s only by being open enough to be aware of the upending of a person’s world and life—the poems seem to suggest—that endings of all sorts might have potentially fruitful new beginnings. We have to experience and feel pain and loss in order to fully value what is light afterwards.
In We Shed Our Skin Like Dynamite, Conyer Clayton proves herself to be a poet with a keen sense of style and presence. Her voice, her poetry, asks the reader to consider what it means to question their life experiences. How do we cope with our life’s tragedies? How do we manage aftermath and tsunami-like trauma, abuse, addiction, loss, and grief? How do we manage the transformations that make us anew afterwards? The surfaces of things, and the undersides, too, are all there for us to consider.
Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. She was poet laureate in Sudbury from 2016-18, and was the first woman appointed to the role. Kim's latest book of poems is These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019). She's a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers' Union of Canada, and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim blogs fairly regularly at kimfahner.wordpress.com and can be reached via her author website at www.kimfahner.com