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Over the Roofs of the World

by Olive Senior

Over The Roofs of the World is perhaps the perfect title for the third book of poetry from writer and journalist Olive Senior, who divides her time between Toronto and her native Jamaica. Evoking as it does both Whitman’s barbaric poetic proclamation and the weightlessness of flight, the title encapsulates the range of the collection, from its colourful celebration of birds and the natural world to its playful reckoning with the Western canon.

The first section of the book captures the kingdom of the birds in full flight through folkore and mythology. From the brief “The Secret of Taming Parrot” to the lengthy “Magpie” and “Peacock Tale, 1 & 2,” the poems crackle with a keen sense of wonder, a deep understanding devoid of ornithology. The poems in this section are simultaneously humorous and insightful, lighter than air but freighted with history.

That history comes to play later in the book as Senior writes of the Caribbean – its past, lore, and traditions. “Allspice” is an innocuous enough concrete poem that belies the heft of its closing lines, while the opening lines of “Lacemaker” (“Attached to my bobbins like the spider/I, with no time on my hands, spin out/a lifeline to hang on. Then I make/the noose”) resonate with a plain-spoken power.

Senior does not flinch from confronting the conventions of the canon. It takes a certain heedless bravado to face off against Daniel Defoe and Wallace Stevens, let alone Shakespeare and Pablo Neruda. In poems like “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (after Wallace Stevens)” she confronts the canon head-on, incorporating an “alchemical” Charlie Parker into her corner of the tradition. In “Misreading Wallace Stevens” and the magnificent “Ode to Pablo Neruda,” which closes the volume, she subsumes and absorbs her inspirations, responding in kind, staking her claim to a place in the tradition.

While the individual poems are solid and memorable, Over the Roofs of the World soars when taken as a whole. Systems of symbolism, colour, and folklore build over the course of the book until a virtual world is created, rich with texture, history, and passion.