McClelland & Stewart, 2019
There is always a special sense of promise that I feel when picking up a poetry collection that is centered around a term taken from art history or visual culture more broadly. Much like the drolleries or “grotesques” — small decorative images depicting comical and whimsical hybrid creatures that can be found in the margins of illuminated scripts — for which it is names, McFadzean’s Drolleries entices its reader with the promise of an intricate world that the poet has painstakingly gathered within the pages of the book, as the speaker so aptly puts it in “Kunstkamera”: “It is the artistry/ of the still life that draws us in,/ a cover story for our flagrant staring.”A handheld cabinet of curiosities, Drolleries is filled with the everyday-turned-magical along with the downright fantastical as we have come to recognize it from mythology or even the distant past, far enough removed that it begins to feel like it’s own kind of fantasy.
It feels like a bit of a cop-out but I still think that “Nymph,” the opening poem in Drolleries, would have to be my favourite for the way it captures McFadzean’s masterful handling in transitioning from comically relatable scene of the speaker falling “ass-first in the dappled brook,/ grasping moss-covered rocks” to the promise of an unseen beyond that is revealed in the poem’s final lines, where “the tree’s outstretched hand took hold/ of my ring and wedded itself to me.” “Janus,” “Ghosting,” “Dream Interpretation,” and “Summer Palace” similarly stood out as examples of McFadzean’s control, her ability not so much to weave the impossible into the everyday but to imbue some of the places and activities we are so familiar with that we take their mundaneness for granted, like taking a shower or feeling out of place at an event, with an otherworldly quality.
Similarly, McFadzean offers a different spin on the ekphrastic poetry tradition. The many poems in Drolleries that respond to museums or artworks feel less like reimaginings of these spaces and more like conversations McFadzean has with the source material. In “The Unicorn Tapestries,” McFadzean balances an informative approach with an analytical one, listing the titles of all seven tapestries throughout the poems while attempting to create a relationship between them that historians today still cannot seem to agree upon. McFadzean’s narrative extends beyond the familiar iconography of the tapestries and it is her playful hide-and-seek-like game of listing flora and fauna that demystifies the artworks, bringing readers who have not seen the tapestries in person into their visual space and reacquainting those readers who have with the mysterious subject in a new way.
The reader is therefore brought into McFadzean’s conversation with art and museums through an atmosphere of intimacy that McFadzean cultivates over the course of the collection in the form of a personal narrative, giving readers a glance into the life, love, struggle, and loss of the poems’ “I.” One does not need to have visited the Winter Palace in Russia to feel simultaneously moved and caught off-guard by the final lines in “Russian Ark,” to feel a certain familiarity, rather than déjà vu, with the longing and letting go that McFadzean captures when she writes:
We end our call in the rotunda
after I share the Rembrandts
through my iPhone’s shaky lens.
Sit with the Rubens a little longer
for me. I walk backwards down
the stairwell, and into the sea.
Drolleries can be best summed up in the words of McFadzean herself, from her poem “Ten of Swords”: “Poetry means never being sated.” It is a collection of endless curiosity filled with poems that do not sit still, propelled forward by their own desire to be in and with the world that, as McFadzean shows us, is still full of endless wonders waiting to be discovered around every corner and shower curtain.
Margaryta Golovchenko is a settler-immigrant, poet, critic, and academic based in Tkaronto/Toronto, Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory, Canada. The author of two poetry chapbooks, she is completing her MA in art history and curatorial studies at York University and can be found sharing her (mis)adventures on Twitter @Margaryta505.