Toronto-based Shannon Bramer’s third book is a challenge to the easy assumptions we often make about what topics are appropriate subject matter for poetry. Many of Bramer’s poems have a mixture of political and personal themes, which can often steer poems away from art and into rant, cant, and confession. But Bramer proves that any subject, if handled skillfully, can be made into compelling poetry. She does this by balancing personal conviction and strong feeling with artistic precision and distance. (A touchstone for this collection, from which Bramer draws the title of one of the book’s sections, is Emily Dickinson’s famous line “After a great pain, a formal feeling comes.”)
Bramer never allows sentiment to become sentimental. One poem advertises itself as a “Sentimental Poem About God,” but the reader quickly realizes that it is far more creepy than treacly. In another tight lyric, the speaker wants a baby, which she imagines as a “little/brussels sprout to salt/and butter/and love.” Not hard to see how this poem could capsize into pure mawkishness, but the speaker concludes that she wants to “know my/Baby like the bitter/centre of the world.” Like the fables and fairy tales she borrows from and invents, Bramer’s often lighthearted poems are shot through with darkness.
The imagery and incidents are sometimes weird, but almost never have the telltale reek of innovation for its own sake. Rather, Bramer’s obliquities help her to put the mundane in a new light, and are complemented by a spare simplicity of diction, syntax, and form. There is very little ornamentation in these poems, many of which are set in prose paragraphs, but she varies narrative voice sufficiently to keep the sparseness from palling into dull sameness. Bramer is an interesting poet, and The Refrigerator Memory well worth reading.