The poems in The Secret Signature of Things are immersed in the rich landscape of British Columbia. In the first section of the book, Menagerie, Joseph takes on the voices of 10 resident creatures, some native to B.C., some domestic. By inhabiting this variety of creatures, Joseph extends the usual limits of the lyric, allowing the reader to imaginatively enter into the point of view of the subjects of her poems - crow, carp, swallow - whose voices she assumes. Joseph employs a lean, streamlined lyric, reliant on the clarity and integrity of her images. When crows are described as "Hasidim,// barefoot/ on a sandy beach," ( Crow) or a cormorant as "as a bridegroom in a rumpled/ black suit," the startling unexpectedness of the image, paired with its aptness, brings the subject sharply into focus.
Not all the images in this series accomplish as much, but Joseph's impulse to uncover the transcendent in the ordinary is an engaging one. One can read into Joseph's title a reference to the "doctrine of signatures," which proposes that the created world bears the imprint, or signature, of its creator. And thus mining the everyday for its significance is a valid means to revelation.
A number of poems in the book deal with the struggle to come to poetry: "I want to ask poetry where it was for all those years. Where was it when I chain-smoked my way through Vancouver bingo parlours and where was it when I traded my Penguin classics for True Crime stories? " ( Questions)
Joseph's biography notes her varied employment; she began writing poetry, or at least publishing it, in mid-life, her first book coming out in 2004. Those readers who have encountered similar impediments to creativity will find both comfort and encouragement in these poems. The very skill with which they are deployed is an effective argument against the regret they express over lost opportunity. Her poems encourage us to "[s]end it all, says Annie Dillard:// the black-capped chickadees -/ dart and song of those quick bandits; […]pen the box,/ go ahead -" ( Creation).
For those for whom life has given other and greater obstacles, the inward, self-referential gaze of this subject may seem a bit cloistered. But Joseph's vision is overall an inclusive one. She turns, in the last section of her book, Tracking, to just such external struggles. In this courageous long poem she explores a much less picturesque side of the province. Tracking was generated by Finding Dawn, a film by Métis producer Christine Welsh which examines the murders and disappearances of the estimated 500 missing aboriginal women, many of whom vanished from Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside Skid Row, or along Highway 16, known as the "Highway of Tears," in northern British Columbia.
As Joseph writes, "There is no sense to be made of this,/ no solace." If the tragedy she is attempting to portray at times overwhelms its expression, readers will remain grateful to Joseph, and to Welsh, for their refusal to allow these lives to be forgotten.
Rhea Tregebov is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently (alive): Selected and new poems. In the fall of 2009 her first novel, The Knife Sharpener's Bell, was caught and released by Coteau Books.