Sweet Devilry, a debut collection of poems by Yi-Mei Tsiang, tackles the breadth of roles and expectations thrust upon us as women and mothers. We are pregnant, walking proof of human sexuality. We are frazzled mamas pushing messy hair from our eyes and forcing shoes on tiny feet. We read fairy tales to young daughters and wonder how they will grow to experience this world. We struggle with choices and at times identify with characters in those same fairy tales. In the middle of all of it, we simply try to live with and understand ourselves, our family, and our neighbors. Sweet Devilry, winner of the 2012 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for best first book of poetry by a Canadian writer, touches on all these themes.
In the first section of the book, Tsiang explores the physicality of motherhood, examining pregnancy, birth, and the early years of parenting. She addresses the frustrations of getting a toddler dressed, the difficulty of starting daycare, the complex questions children ask as they learn to talk.
In the clever poem, “Test Perspectives +/–,” for example, each stanza is preceded by the “+” or “–” of a pregnancy test, a small symbol that prepares readers for the emotional reaction to follow. I remember the moment of my own test result, standing in the bathroom, staring at the plastic fusion of math and chemistry in my hand, my world narrowed to a tiny range of emotion. By juxtaposing short, image-soaked stanzas with the mark of a test result, Tsiang encompasses the many, sometimes conflicting, reactions a mother might have to a new pregnancy, and broadens that narrow range of emotion to many other “what ifs.”
She offers the heartbreak:
I was sure you were there,
felt you heavy as heat, could
have slaked my thirst by you,
never imagined this dry
road, asphalt leading nowhere.
Conveys the tension:
9 days late and
starting to be about
And even provides a laugh in the midst of disappointment:
a bit of a let down.
In the second section of Sweet Devilry, Tsiang leaves the biology and struggles of contemporary motherhood and borrows cues from “the little blue books household series,” parental advice issued by the Canadian government in 1923. The poems in this chapter take their titles directly from these pamphlets: “How to Take Care of the Baby,” “How to Take Care of the Father in the Family,” and “Beginning Our Home in Canada.”
In “The Canadian Mother’s Book,” Tsiang writes of a baby lost in infancy. The narrator thinks of her daughter dead in sleep, and notes, “the nursery is already losing / her mark.” At the same time, the narrator/mother reflects on her still living, older children:
They play warily, wedge themselves
into small spaces, the rotted trunk of an oak,
the rafters in the barn, their hearts
straining like caught birds.
That wary play alongside the mother’s grief serves as counterpoint to the empty nursery, and becomes an engine that propels the mother forward despite her desire to mourn.
Each poem in this section responds to the earnest yet antiquated government advice and holds concrete experience beside abstract expectation. The advice seems naïve and outdated, but Tsiang’s poems instill a sense of isolation familiar to mothers both past and present, in Canada and elsewhere.
The little-blue-book poems are followed by a short sequence of persona poems based on well-known fairy tales: Hansel and Gretel, Bluebeard, the Seven Dancing Sisters, and Red Riding Hood. The book’s organization seems somewhat illogical here, especially since the third chapter is comprised entirely of “Den Lille Havfrue,” a long poem written in the voice of the Little Mermaid. Grouping all of the fairy tale poems together may have made for more fluid reading but would have left the historical second section short on pages. Thankfully, Tsiang’s expansive writing smooths these organizational bumps.
In the final section of the book, Tsiang considers her growing daughter, the struggles in her changing neighborhood, and her father’s death. While these topics aren’t necessarily connected, Tsiang’s strong poems bind them into a whole.
In the poem “The Cataraqui Street Verses,” Tsiang brings us to her community, her own street in Kingston, Ontario, and confronts both the struggles of raising a child in a sketchy neighborhood and the interplay of community history and gentrification. In the part of the poem titled “Getting to Know the Neighbors,” she doesn’t flinch, describing “shat-on men’s underwear” she finds in the yard and then writing a few stanzas later:
After the underwear, we built a fence
and still my daughter slides to the tune of their arguments
feet landing at the same time that another man
goes down, nose broken,
bits of blood showing through the
peek-a-boo slatted fence.
At the end of the poem, with change coming to the neighborhood, she describes a bed she finds behind the soccer field, and notes:
are thrown aside, as though the owner
woke suddenly surprised by a bed
without a house.
Near the end of the book, in the dazzling poem “Saline,” Tsiang pares down her imagery to describe the aftermath of her father’s death from cancer. The poem begins with a litany of what had to be removed from the house, “swabs, dressings, half-jars of Vaseline.” As the poem narrows to its final moment of grief, Tsiang tightens her image. She moves from the many things she needs to throw away, to the saline, to the empty jars, and finally to the space between them, skillfully calling our attention to the emptiness that is left when loss washes through our lives:
My mother had made the saline solution
every night, stacked jars to cool
in a large green wash basin on the counter.
It takes so little. I am overcome:
the jars, emptied and drying,
dividing the sunlight between them.
Through such focused images, Tsiang guides her readers to difficult places, to questions often painful to confront as mothers, as women, as neighbors, and as individuals reckoning with the archetypes that society uses to define them. Tsiang reminds us to look beyond the test result, the canned advice, and the stock character into the complex problems we face as individuals operating in a world that sometimes works against us. She examines the space between expectations and daily reality, and writes poems that acknowledge both the beauty and the struggle in life.