Book Review – Sinuous3 min read

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Turnstone Press (September 26 2013)
128 pages, $17 (Paperback)



Vancouver psychologist and writer/poet Lydia Kwa’s second collection of poetry sinuous charts the geographical and psychological territory of the lost, the alienated, and the wounded. As a practising psychologist, Kwa is all too familiar with trauma — whether it is “heinous tortures” or “garden variety strains of cruelty” — and the title of one of the essays she cites as a source, “The Intrusive Past: The flexibility of memory and the Engraving of Trauma,” could be a subtitle for Kwa’s book itself.

The collection is bookended by two sections of poetry grounded in the particular; the first, “Wandering Phantom,” opens with Kwa, the foreign student studying psychology in Toronto in 1980, and the closing section, “Base,” is rooted in the her present life in Vancouver. In between, sinuous covers everything from dreams, travels to Asia, romantic entanglements, encounters with patients, to visits with her ageing mother in Singapore and more. Not surprisingly, the most emotionally engaging poems deal with her changing relationship with her mother: “her fragility ignites / a spark of tenderness in me…past cruelties, neglect, misunderstandings / no longer obstacles…my heart opens up / despite the absence of words.”

The poetry is often interspersed with definitions of key words formatted in the same way as entries in a dictionary — terse, cryptic, and dense with a multitude of possible meanings. The text also includes many references to ideas, images, and theories in psychology, philosophy, religion, and art. In truth, as Kwa makes clear in her preface to the book, these poems written over a span of fourteen years are a series of dialogues with self or “efforts at adaptation.” sinuous artfully fuses personal, family, cultural, and modern histories positing questions of identity, complicity, and guilt whether in personal narrative, or in a broader political context such as the “dark history of hatred” in her adopted country. These are not the most accessible of poems (she includes several pages of endnotes), but they are worthy of our close study.

Kwa’s professional realm is that of “basal ganglia hubs of action selection / routine behaviours travelled in memory / here, a nucleus of habit / there a burst of new / where is the core of automatic? / what unfurls the delicate track of / venturing?”; identifying, analyzing, and mapping of patterns are all tools used by the psychologist in order to challenge or overcome.   Here, the scientist’s tools are also the poet’s devices. Kwa is preoccupied with the trauma and suffering of all individuals regardless of whether it is due to prejudice, politics, war, or disaster; she writes: “in this world rife with such tragedy / what could I offer? / simply this wish to reconcile / without pretence.” In sinuous, Kwa examines life with a scientist’s probing eye and a humanist’s grieving heart.


This review was featured in issue 19.1

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