A Different Wolf, Deborah-Anne Tunney
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020
You’ll know this is a different sort of poetry collection when you see the cover for Deborah-Anne Tunney’s A Different Wolf. It’s an oyster colour, with a solitary eye peering out from a peep hole at the centre of it all. This suits the overarching tone of the book, given that the poems explore the cinematic worlds that were created by the famed 20th century British born filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock. In places, the work feels voyeuristic, but perhaps that comes from my having read about how terribly Hitchcock treated his female actors and employees. I bring that pop culture knowledge and reference to my reading of Tunney’s book of poems.
For some reason, I remember watching a few Hitchcock films while I was in my teens. I specifically recall Rear Window, Psycho, The Birds, and Dial M for Murder, although I’m not even sure why these are the ones I recall more vividly than any others he made. I remember thinking they looked slick on the television screen, and that the women and men always seemed one-dimensional, perfectly dressed and turned out. They seemed so stylized, and epitomized what I thought and imagined Hollywood was about in the glory days of cinema. Those films of his, though, were illusions—all polished and seductive on the screen. Still, I was always left thinking: what’s buried underneath it all? What’s hidden? Where’s the substance? Why is it so superficial?
Tunney gets at this notion of appearance versus reality in a number of her pieces, including the Vertigo-inspired poem, “The Redwoods Bear Witness,” with the lines: “The crash of waves held in his/mind as he bends her head/back, locks her in a kiss/love, like light, illuminates her fake face.” Then, in “Charlie and Charlie,” the poet writes: “This was the moment when she/tore the front door off his façade and saw the/tailored swine lurking within.” No one is who they seem to be in any Hitchcock film. They are all superficial and slick, hiding underneath with satchels of secrets yet to be discovered.
You read the poems almost hesitantly, a bit nervous, and feeling the suspense that Hitchcock created, but also unsettled by the way in which women were portrayed and presented in so many of his films. He was that omnipresent eye—as director and filmmaker—and his presence is felt throughout A Different Wolf. The epigraph—and the title—for the collection finds its origin in something Hitchcock himself wrote: “Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf.” Hitchcock is a creepy cinematic genius of sorts, and maybe that is why we find him so fascinating as a strange Hollywood icon—perhaps because his work was able to reflect some of the unsettling social and cultural undercurrents of his time.
The part of the collection that really sings, I think, is titled “Time and Death.” These are the poems where Tunney explores her own personal connections to Hitchcock’s films. In “Watching Vertigo,” the poet writes: “I understand that evening out/the rear view window of the DeSoto/the bridge distant over his shoulder.” Her skill with imagery and metaphor is evident further in the poem when she writes: “I know what it means: the fabric of his longing/the unfurling of waves pulling him out/like the moon pulls him free of his wrong yearnings/past the crags, into an eternity of blue and loss.” Then, in “Drive-in, 1969,” Tunney reflects on the draw of Hitchcock’s films. They offered an escape from the realities of life, so that “we did not notice our fate/playing out in that living room with its piano, its portrait/of dead parents, the fireplace…” In “The View from Point Reyes,” she writes: “I’ve been there, by that bridge, by the lighthouse on Point Reyes/I’ve seen days like that, starkly bright, when the hills are burnt/and faded from the sun.” Tunney can, as a poet, root her memories in images that are beautifully cinematic in scope.
Each poem in A Different Wolf is inspired by a film, but you needn’t worry that you won’t understand the poems if you haven’t seen the movies. If you haven’t seen them, it feels—from a reader’s point of view—that you can now almost enter into them in a sort of strangely voyeuristic and interactive way. The section titled “Woman in the Male Gaze” also speaks to the time in which Hitchcock lived and flourished, and reminds readers of the social mores by which many men and women were strangely governed at the time. What’s seductive about this collection, though, is the way the poems feel like tiny excerpts of films you may or may not have seen once in your youth. A Different Wolf is both poetic and cinematic; it walks between worlds, and it invites readers to tread carefully—to find their balance so they can always come back to the present if the internal world of a Hitchcock film becomes too dark or overwhelming. For those who love poetry and film, this book of poems might be right up your film noir alley.
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 Ontario representative of The Writers' Union of Canada (2020-22), and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim can be reached via her author website at www.kimfahner.com