“I saw the thimble on your finger but I didn’t know//you were our thimble.” – Vanessa Shields
I fell in love with Thimbles, the third and latest poetry collection by Canadian poet Vanessa Shields, while it was still an infant in PDF format.
Wow, such a raw and honest ravelling and unravelling of emotions. Such a heart-wrenching tribute to the late Maria Giuditta Merlo Bison, her loving, seamstress grandmother (or as the Italians would say Nonna).
As I slipped inside Shields’ imaginary sewing basket and learned more about her personal inter-generational love story, my appreciation for the book grew stronger!
In my opinion, it’s Shields’ best poetry collection to date. Even CBC Books recently listed it as one of the “55 Canadian poetry collections to check out in spring 2021”.
As I mentioned in my Goodreads review, her work not only explored a new maturity in subject matter but her use of the sewing and mountain themes and motifs beautifully stitched together the narrative thread of her 94 poems.
So many of the metaphors spoke to me. One of my favourite lines: “i found her dressmaker’s shears while she was sleeping/i cut into her past & freed up her laughter” (p. 44)
Picture this image: “In the mountains Maria’s mind is a dress shop/a riveting assembly of delicate designs” (p. 15) Then towards the end of the book: “Nonna stands courageous on her favourite mountain in Italy/our mourning a songbird’s trill caressing her earlobe” (p. 107)
Several poems expressed sorrow: “her pain/juts like a/misplaced stitch” (p. 55) and “Death straddles the window sill/a waiting storm” (p. 52) Expect some tears too! In the poem “i call them episodes”, the poet wrote “I can see the disease/like a seam ripper/tearing apart/connections/in her brain” (p. 45)
At first, I wasn’t sure I would be able to handle another book about grief especially during the pandemic lockdown. However, Shields’ poetic tribute reads like a well-crafted novel with strong characters, vivid settings, and a nice balance of rhythm and emotions.
Divided into three sections: un bacin d’amor; only the good lasts; and domani è un altro giorno; the work pulls in the reader with the introduction of Nonna as child, teen, seamstress, and mother and then builds on family relationships, followed by the challenges of Nonna’s dementia and her family’s reactions to her demise.
Those familiar with Shields’ brash and bold verses from her earlier books can still find some humour in this collection. The poem “in willistead park she teaches me” reflected on how to “pee at the base of the elm tree” (p. 29). In “nonna takes a bath”, she described her grandmother: “her breasts like white sports socks filled with mangoes”. (p. 30).
Lines of beauty and tenderness shared such descriptions as “she is threads of light” (p. 83) and “her cheeks metal/dimples like the tip of a thimble” (p. 83)
While most of the poems are written in free verse style, there is enough variety in the book to keep the reader interested. The earlier poems were longer; later poems focusing on more stressful topics tended to have shorter lines to reinforce the rhythm of a rapid heartbeat.
I also loved the poem “her past unravels” where two different voices were woven together like a tapestry. In fact, there were few poems I didn’t like.
When a signed copy of Thimbles arrived in my mailbox during National Poetry Month (#NPM2021), my appreciation for the final product intensified. I loved the attention to details: the striking ‘red’ cover with the heart-shaped shadow created by two thimbles; the sewing and fabric images on the back cover; the matching red end sheets; and the soft creamy paper that acted like a pincushion for her poetic words.
Inside the package, a beautiful thank you note, and a silver thimble wrapped in a stitched homemade envelope.
Heartwarming, tender, deeply personal! A colour-coordinated patchwork of lyrical emotions! Hear my applause!
This Thursday, April 29th, the 123-page collection published by Palimpsest Press will be virtually launched. Palimpsest’s spring 2021 launch is planned for May 13, 2021. More details about these events, Shields’ future readings, plus an amazing book trailer created by her son Jett Shields can be found here.
Over the weekend, I had a chance to chat with Vanessa despite her busy schedule.
Vanessa, you’ve birthed another book. This time during a pandemic. What do you hope the reader will glean from reading your new collection of poems?
I hope that readers will feel welcomed by the love-fuelled story I’m telling. My intention for the entire structure of the book was to create a conversation about family, loss, illness, anger, grief, growth, forgiveness….so many major emotions and life experiences. But at its essence, Thimbles is a conversation that I’m having with readers, that I’m having with my Nonna, that I’m having with myself. Some parts of the conversation are very difficult to be a part of…the living them in order to write them was definitely difficult! I hope that readers will embrace the importance of ‘witnessing’ those we love and be compelled to ask questions of their loved ones they haven’t yet asked. Though my previous books also expressed love, Thimbles gets to the threadbare heart of it in a way that, perhaps, I haven’t yet written.
So many people have experienced grief and loss during these pandemic times! As a writer, how have you managed to keep sane and what coping strategies did you discover worked the best for you?
Writing poetry and writing in my journal were the two main coping arms I clung to during my Nonna’s illness and subsequent death. As the pandemic arrived and continues to cling in different ways, I continue to drop deeply into the pages of my journals to write out my fears and joys through poetry and free-writes.
I cry a lot. I talk a lot – on the phone, via virtual modes, via long, hand-written letters to friends and family…communication is really at the heart of how my heart keeps its broken parts zipped up. I am often afraid. I am often overcome with guilt. I often feel outside of myself…and lost, but the writing, the reading, the words – they always lift me up and remind me to breathe and have hope and love.
I work with and learn from many writers – emerging and established. This also helps keep my creative spirit thriving and busy. But really, grief is a gift as much as it is a geyser of loss. It doesn’t go away…but it can change you in ways that you never knew were possible, and growth can happen.
Also, flavoured coffee. And sourdough bread. Goodness! And my family! Gah. Our little bubble is filled with hilarious love and patience and emotion. And dog hair. Our two goldens keep on giving of their fur!
You are such an amazing marketer and are so giving of your time to other writers. What do you feel are the key secrets to running a successful marketing campaign?
Oy. Shall I admit here that social media gives me anxiety? I’ve really had to figure out ways to stay calm about sharing and understand what it all means to me and my writing life. It’s taken years, but I finally feel (mostly) confident that using my blog, e-blasts, and short posts work best for me.
I’ve always enjoyed ‘marketing’ because it’s really a fancy term for ‘bringing community together’…I like to think of it that way. If I think about how words and creativity can bring us together, help us feel less alone, motivate us to speak our voices…then, it makes promoting events, book releases, literary happenings, other writers, and other businesses a pleasure.
Secrets: schedule time to do your social media/marketing; including a start and finish time. Find programs/apps that you feel comfortable creating in. For me, that’s Canva for the little poetry posters I create each morning, and WordPress for my blog/website. Make notes so you remember what you want to say/promote. And let go of the idea that you can be all things to all people. Your social media/marketing is an extension of what is important to you, of your creative voice. If your creative voice doesn’t speak social media – consider other avenues of communication. Email, newsletters, videos, podcasts, hand-written letters, phone calls, collage!
We’re all waiting for COVID-19 to end! What’s next for Gertrude’s Writing Room and your own personal writing?
That’s a great question. The heart answer is: I don’t know! I’m taking my time enjoying the process of releasing Thimbles into the world! I’m going with the wild flow of the pandemic because to try and hold the future these days, in an attempt to make commitments, feels really impossible.
I can tell you that my business model for Gertrude’s Writing Room has shifted, and new dreams are marinating.
I have several ideas for new writing projects…for a new poetry collection and a creative non-fiction piece. I’m still working on my young adult novel.
At the end of the year, I’ll have 365 poems to work with from the poem-a-day I’m writing. At some point, I have to read all the books I’ve purchased during the pandemic! (Yikes.)
Just keep on being creative. Keep on working with writers. Keep on talking. Keep on writing and reading.
Is there anything else you wish to share with your readers?
I’d like to say thank you for all your support! Thank you for reading poetry. Thank you for reading this blog! Thank you to Palimpsest Press for publishing Thimbles. Thank you, Deb, for asking me these great questions, and supporting writers on your blog! I’m grateful!
Vanessa, you are an inspiration!
Shields is no stranger to this blog. In the summer 2014, she first appeared in a Writing Process blog tour. In October 2016, her gutsy Look At Her second collection of poetry was introduced followed by a September 2019 blog post featuring her new literary venture Gertrude’s Writing Room – A Gathering Place for Writers based in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.