The Art of Breathing Underwater
by Cathy Ford

Mother Tongue Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-1-896-94909-3.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 03/08/2012


At WordStorm, the monthly reading event in Nanaimo, British Columbia, where Cathy Ford was a recent featured reader, she called the publication of her book a miracle. The Art of Breathing Underwater is her first full-length book of poetry in twenty-one years.

The book is also a visual miracle, allowing for and celebrating Ford's long poems and long lines that would not have been extended across the page if condensed in a conventional-sized book of poetry. Janet Dwyer's cover and interior photographs of natural forms and flowers are ideal for the collection. The photographer's intent "to create new realities and relationships" is a fitting description for the poems as well.

Ford is deliberate in reading her work in public, treating each word with care. On hearing her, I was reminded of the years Ford took to form these poems, the risks she took, and the other writers who sustained her faith in a creative community.

I found I had to suspend my need for a story, as in a narrative poem, and keep my eyes and ears open to the words and phrases, which I likened to pieces of sea glass suddenly revealed on the shore. As Janet Munro writes in her introduction, "Those who practice the art listen viscerally, listen visually, with the ear of the heart." She was referring to the "soundscape" that takes place underwater with fish, mammals in the womb, and whales that "map a coast by sonar while holding their breath."

The collection is made up of three books. Book One, "Women and Children First," includes a triptych, the first part of which is "wallpaper, or forced perspective, once altered: your name here." The first stanza of the poem notes the names of women writers and artists. They're referred to throughout with descriptions that bring their startling reality into view.

For instance, "the singular deer, her heart pierced," describes a Frida Kahlo painting. Although Kahlo was called a surrealist painter, the Mexican artist didn't ascribe to the description, as she said she was simply painting the reality of her life.

Although British Columbia poet Pat Lowther isn't named in the poem, "the hidden madness, two children dragged / after the red mattress, the bloody hammer" probably refers to the poet, murdered by her husband.

Ford's experience blends with the memories of the creative women before and around her; a mix of feminine beauty ("your body like perfume") and the horror of women's lives and deaths ("it is astonishing what survives after / what kills you.")

Book Two, "Stillwater, Spillgate," was inspired by the exhibition of forty-five kimonos, "Homage to Nature: Landscape Kimonos by Master Itchiku Kubota," at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Ontario ending in October 1995. Woven into the forty-five sections of the long poem and offset from the center margin are the italicized names of the Kubota kimonos in English translation. References are made to the "unnatural deaths of women in contemporary society," including in South America, Mexico, the United States, and along Canada's "highway of tears."

Although Ford shared her poetry before its publication in full-length book form during the past twenty-one years, it's interesting to note that Kubota dreamed of his kimono project while a prisoner of war during World War II. Once released he devoted himself to the project and its perfection, not allowing anyone to see the kimonos for twenty years.

Cathy Ford said at her reading, "trust the writer, immerse yourself." A wise suggestion when diving in. She also trusts the reader and when words sparkle with personal truth, the writer's and the reader's, there are many gifts in the immersion.

Cathy Ford's previously published work includes fourteen books of poetry and numerous chapbooks and folios. She is a founding member of the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets and a former president. Ford lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

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