The Red Element, Catherine Graham

In Catherine Graham’s third collection of poems, the poem “Doll’s Eyes” consists of only two lines: “Bubbles at the end of red stems./The illusion of looking out is looking in.”  The Red Element is devoted to new ways of seeing, and Graham revisits and revises memories of her mother, herself as a child, and the places she has travelled. 

Throughout much of the collection, Graham recalls games she played when she was young.  These poems are sharp, imaginative, and never cutesy.   In “The Underwater Tea Party,” she succinctly describes a tea party, “We sip without cups, pretending to swallow./ White calves surround us like a grove of birch.”  Because her poems are so short (the previous one is a mere four lines, and almost all are shorter than twelve lines!), they retain the qualities of memory: fleeting, distilled, highly charged, sensual.  In “My Suburban Forest,” Graham dreamily intones, “Before my long-fingered hands grew into long-/fingered hands...I’d race home/ smelling of sap and dusk.” 

The collection is cohesive in its effortless diction and spare form (unrhymed lines carefully arranged into couplets or small stanzas); additionally, there is a pattern in Graham’s images, and she circles around birds, water, bones, scissors, and the colour red.  In the title poem, the speaker remembers her aunt’s kitchen and the red element of the stove, and how her aunt compared her to her mother.  The speaker stands with her aunt and explains, “I’m looking out at the red line, the fall./...Hand on my hip, neck bent gently,/ my dead mother, standing there, about to light up.”  Graham’s speaker has both replaced and resurrected her mother, in a disarmingly forthright tone. 

Graham’s poetry is especially admirable in its combination of accessibility, urgency, and imagination, making The Red Element one of my favourite poetry collections of the year. 

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