Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Kim Fahner : Talking to Strangers, by Rhea Tregebov

Talking to Strangers, Rhea Tregebov
Vehicule: 2024





I’ve been a fan of Rhea Tregebov’s poetry for a long time now, so when I heard she was releasing a new book of poems, I waited impatiently for it to come into the world. Talking to Strangers is full of lyric poems that take notice of the seemingly simple things that people might often take for granted: unexpected meetings in an airport, on a British Columbia beach while walking, outside a hospital on a sidewalk, and in a café. As with all good poetry, Tregebov is mindful in observing the world around her—writing poems that speak about the complexity (as well as the paradoxical simplicity) of love, grief, praise, confusion, and mortality.

The poet does not shirk from writing pandemic-era poems, documenting and recalling the heightened tension and uncertainty of those early lockdowns. Forced to be inside so much back then, we were isolated and clumped into “bubbles” or “clusters.” Our freedom became walks, times when we would encounter—and talk to—strangers. The people we might once have avoided because they were strangers quickly became the very people we most yearned to cross paths with on neighbourhood sidewalks.

In “Talk: Karma,” the speaker tells of a man she has encountered in the airport, someone who has traveled 18 hours, speaking of the worries he has for his ill sister in Manila. As her flight is soon departing, the speaker says, “we tell him goodbye, decline his offered hand.” In “Talk: Tangle,” there is “an ancient hippie with a Southern drawl” who “may/or may not believe in vaccines,” so the speaker chooses to “sit/at a healthy distance.” In “Talk: Mask,” the encounter with a stranger takes an ominous turn. After visiting her sister in palliative care, the speaker walks into the street, only to meet a man who, through a mask, “fake-coughs, growls: I have Covid.” She reacts, telling the man’s friend that her sister is dying. His disregard for her well- being and health angers her as it threatens her ability to sit with her sibling during her last hours. What seeps into this poem is the feeling that the world during the pandemic was upside down, with some taking greater care with people, while others showed much less compassion.

Another theme that is present in Talking to Strangers is that of how we learn to value life itself through our meetings with loss in a variety of forms. In the first poem in the book, “What We Are Left,” the reader meets a 2000-year-old mummy whose loved ones “didn’t want you to be alone” and so “buried miniature terracotta vases, glass pots for healing oils, balms.” In “Kaddish: Villanelle,” the speaker recites a prayer for her father, coming “to know the words with all my heart, all my might,/& I say them when I lie down & when I rise up,” but struggling to understand how to manage the intense grief that arrives after a funeral. Looking for answers to questions about mortality, love, and loss, “God” has its speaker taking note of “an eagle high/above the Pacific,” making a heartfelt wish to return in another incarnation as a bird—“above everything earthly,” but still somehow “of the earth.”

The final sequence, “Behold: Notes Towards an Elegy,” is a small series of poems that are dedicated to the poet’s sister. Poignant and strong, these pieces speak of how we manage and continue to exist when the bottom of our worlds have dropped out. With someone dying, the centre of a person’s life (the one who remains) is “snatched” and everything becomes a kaleidoscope of memory and emotion: “Grief here/not you.//You’re nowhere/in these words.” For poets and writers—who find the act of reading and writing comforting in both good and bad times—to not find that comfort in the written word often increases the intensity of the pain of grief.

Talking to Strangers asks its readers to consider how best to “navigate/the weight of what/you had and don’t/anymore, of losing/what you couldn’t/do without.” How do we manage when the things (and people) we love disappear? How do we find meaning in the middle of the stark and confusing emptiness that accompanies deep loss? Perhaps, in reading these poems, we find respite in the lines and stanzas, but also in the people we meet in quiet, unexpected ways through our daily interactions. Tregebov suggests we also find those we loved dearly in the memories we have collected over the years, gathering and holding them close so that we can visit those times, people, and places who have now gone away. The collection also gives readers quiet permission to accept the notion that being confused after loss is a state that must be traversed without clear direction or guidance. We find our vulnerability, and our strength, in living with and through the loss of love, even as we continue to search for connection and meaning in the world around us.





Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. Her latest full collection of poems is Emptying the Ocean (Frontenac House, 2022) and she's just published a poetry chapbook, Fault Lines and Shatter Cones (Emergency Flash Mob Press, 2023). She is the First Vice-Chair for The Writers' Union of Canada (2023-25), a member of the League of Canadian Poets, and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim's first novel, The Donoghue Girl, will be published by Latitude 46 Publishing in Fall 2024. She may be reached via her author website at

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