Poetry captures nuances of resilience

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May 21, 2014

Steeling Effects

By Jane Byers

Caitlin Press

95 pages, $16.95

Reviewed by Barbara Herringer

From the very first page, Jane Byers plunges readers into her gritty, beautiful first collection of poems as she prises apart her experiences of resilience, of hanging on, of enduring. In short, Steeling Effects reveals the real world: a near-death birth, sexual assault, learning to be an adoptive parent of twins, being a lover, the intricacies of work, and the crucible of one’s geographic location. Her spare language creates a landscape that may be familiar, or at least understood by many of us — the tangled fragility and strength of our humanness.

In a recent interview with Shannon Webb-Campbell (Plenitude, Issue 4) Byers related that “steeling effect” is a phenomena in psychological resilience research suggesting that certain stressors may act as an immunization or enhancement of later functioning in an individual. That definition illuminates the journey of Byers’s life and the territories of resilience and resistance that she uncovers in each of the five sections of the book.

Byers moved to Canada from North England with her family as a young girl, and lives with her wife and two children in Nelson, B.C. Just days after the release of this collection by Caitlin Press, she won the Richard Carver Award at the Kootenay Literary Competition.  She is a three-time winner of the Nelson and District Poetry Competition. Even in her paid work with WorkSafeBC,  and previously in Toronto in corporate health and safety, the reality of resilience is foremost. And it’s shared in a remarkable section of the book.

Byers begins the collection with her near-death birth experience and ends it with the death of a 90-year-old friend. The first section of six poems sets the stage for life-shifting events. I appreciate how she illustrates the shifting moods of resilience in each poem — what keeps her going, what and who sustains her. She is generous in sharing those life-changing incidents that many would keep hidden. In “What Doesn’t Kill You . . .,” she sets the groundwork for the collection:

My first journey alone from uterus to incubator,
an inoculation against despair.

I study resilience.
I search for cracks in structures
returned to their original shape
after assault.

Breakwaters eventually break.

I vow to mimic the tensile strength of a spider web
and the mutability of bacteria
that render them resilient,
not the succor of cement.

I breathe my way back,

empty and fill,

to belief in my pliant self.

I found Byers’ section called “Joy’s Urgent Threshold” especially poignant. These poems move to a new level as she writes the space of parenting 14-month old adopted twins — their lives from birth mother, to foster parents, and finally, to Byers and her partner.

Still, how to explain those essential people disappearing?
What’s left is the efflorescence of tears on your face.
I hold you, you cry some more.
Now you insist, “I cry, I cry,”
as if it is your only birthright.
That lonely sob, a consent to loss.

Throughout the book Byers uses just the right word, line break and space to let us follow her narrative. She is generous to those who people her poems: her grandmother as an audacious young woman; women and men struggling with dangerous work; immigration. And she is generous with herself: how that first conscious breath seems to have set her on a creative path–and opened the door to steeling effects.I’m sure I’m not the only one waiting for Byers’s second collection.

Barbara Herringer is a poet and editor living in Victoria.   

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

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