Published by the Mennonite Literary Society   Water Issue. Spring 2001. Number 7.  

The Water of Life

Melanie Cameron Holding the Dark
The Muses' Company, 1999, 112 pages.

Reviewed by Diane Driedger

Melanie Cameron's first poetry book, Holding the Dark, alludes to darkness many times, but water is also a recurring image. Cameron's book is very dense in its language and in its darkness.

Reading through the sections of the book is like swimming through a dark tunnel with glimmers of light and images that become more clear. By the time you are at the end of the work, entering "Floating Ophelia," a section about Ophelia from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," you are floating with Cameron. It is a relief to float on the surface for while, to think about the images in the book, to understand that there has almost been a birthing experience.

The first poems about darkness are explanatory, trying to get a handle on what it is:

The darkness is a handshake.
Some kind of agreement
nothing and nothing.

Later, in the section, "Daughters of Silence," Cameron probes the darkness of war and poverty in Central America.

Where do you find the dark
with all that fire, with all that color
burning your skin,
with bullets burning
everyone's ears,
hunger burning
the insides of stomachs...

Melanie Cameron has a strong woman's voice, which grows larger as the book progresses. Many poems in the first three sections of the book are told in the third person and this creates a distance from the poet for the reader. This begins to change and Cameron's uncovering of her personal voice is heard later, especially in her poem to her mom:

two dried flowers, I will send to you, two
silhouettes of the voice
you left me.

She highlights the voices of women in her poems. And by the time the Ophelia poems close out the book, Cameron has reinforced the importance of a woman's voice:

Sometimes a woman knows
her only chance is to hold
her own voice, wrap
the speaking world around her
and lie floating in its arms.

Another image that recurs is one of surrender. Cameron writes of an almost zen-like surrender to the circumstances of life. In one poem a father-like figure "...carries me. / He carries me still." In the last poem in the book she is letting go and starting over:

I am slowly learning, sometimes
returning to where I started and beginning
to learn again,
not to ask,
but to lay my body down, like a river.

She surrenders to the water of rebirth. The book has many layers of darkness and light. And the light layers are beautiful love poems that are full of passion and innocence:

When the peaceful dark came down
like a mother returning,
I would let you go, gently
into the night.

I've been holding you like this
for hundreds of years. We are old
together, like the sky and the moon.

One feels both old and young after reading Cameron's collection. Her poems speak of those learning about life, and of the despair of those who have experienced lives of anguish. It is all a part of the water of life.

Diane Driedger, author of The Mennonite Madonna, lives in Winnipeg.