Hannus by Rachel Lebowitz
Pedlar Press, 2007
By Evie Christie
Pedlar Press is a Toronto press famous for its award-winning books and cover designs. Beth Follett, novelist and Pedlar publisher and editor, has (single-handedly) put out excellent poetry and fiction since 1997, making a big name for the small press. A recent Pedlar book worth notice is Rachel Lebowitz’s Hannus, the poetic biography of Ida Hannus, a Finnish-Canadian suffragist living in Vancouver and in the B.C. Finnish commune Sointula, from the turn of the 20th century to the Cold War. The Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize jury took notice as Lebowitz was shortlisted in 2007 for her debut collection.
After I’d read some of Lebowitz’s industrialist poems in Event Magazine, I ordered my copy of Hannus (another really bloody good-looking book by Pedlar). Not having read the “creative biography” genre, my expectations were narrow: a book about a Canadian, a suffragette, and a socialist has to be politically minded, not to mention the familial connection to the subject.
I have to stand by my opinion that political (even if it is gorgeously left-wing and feminist) poetic works can be appallingly ineffectual and are occasionally barely more than poorly rendered stabs at a highly dogmatic, semi-constructed manifesto.
Luckily for the reader, Lebowitz gets it. She negotiates the subject matter poetically rather than politically or personally. There is, thankfully, no ranting. Instead the work mirrors the unconventional life of the subject; there is a fragmented, chaotic quality to the text, which includes photographs, poems, prose, and historical marginalia. In keeping with the times, there’s a dark and gritty component, including obits and passages such as this:
There’s water—and wind, smacking salt
Onto her face;
Ragged clouds like birds
With wings torn off,
And the deck,
Smudged with dirt.
A nice, finely wrought passage with tough, boiled-down language rather than the lofty prosaic verse which is sometimes used, perplexingly, when handling Canadian historical (often female) figures. That is not to say that there are not instances of lackadaisical language that reads more like historical information, but Hannus remains interesting even in its less successful poetic moments. I recommend seeking it out and reading for yourself.