Poetic potpurri sustained by love, immediacy

Kathy Mac’s first volume of poetry, Nail Builders Plan for Strength and Growth, won the Gerald Lampert Award for Best First Book of Poems in Canada in 2001 and was subsequently nominated for the Governor General’s Award. An auspicious launch for a first volume. Now we have a second volume, and The Hundefräulein Papers is a worthy successor. It bears all the distinguishing Mac marks: experimental audacity; singularity of theme and content; an attractive playfulness admixed with transcendental gravity.

Mac sets the scene: “This book chronicles a period from December 1994 to April 2001, when I lived and worked with Elisabeth Mann Borgese, as well as several days in August of 2001, when I was uncertain whether or not I’d return after a summer away.” That’s the context. Elisabeth Mann Borgese (1918-2002), the inspiring muse of the volume, was a woman of extraordinary gifts and pedigree. A child of Katya and Thomas Mann (the great German novelist), she was an accomplished classical pianist, animal behaviourist, playwright and short-story writer. She was best known, arguably, as the premier world advocate for the rights and integrity of our oceans. In this capacity she garnered numerous honours, including Germany’s Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit, the Order of Canada and a nomination for the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. Mac, a St. Thomas University English professor, was for many years her hundefräulein or “live-in dog nanny/housekeeper/amanuensis.” The poems or papers constitute an imaginative riff on a life of privilege, complexity, genius and passion. The Hundefräulein Papers is a potpourri, a gallimaufry, of lyrics, elegies, found poetry, anti-poems, testamentary tributes and personal anecdotes-all sustained by love. This is a love for the immediate subject, the grandmother/artist/advocate Elisabeth Mann Borgese, and love for the dogs that define her world, the world that Borgese shares with Mac. The special relationship that exists between the poet and the formidable German-turned-Nova Scotian (her home was in Sambro Head in rural Halifax) is nicely captured in the poem Honest Reportage. Solicitous, curious, ever-observant and loving, Mac is more than a dog nanny or even amanuensis. She is the biographer-in-verse, the astute chronicler, not unaware of the warts, tirelessly admiring of a stoical presence. The most skilfully executed poem in the volume-deserving of an extended analysis-is Fragmented Epithalamium (in return for W. H. Auden’s ‘Epithalamium’ celebrating Elisabeth Mann’s marriage to Guiseppe Antonio Borgese, November 23, 1939). It is a poem that weaves and cross weaves the lives of several lovers, the life-giving and necessary deceptions, the political madness, the inhuman and constrictive laws, the subtle and covert parallels, the heroic stratagem and the carefully crafted self-disclosures and ambiguities of the poet(s). And the wonderful footnotes. It is the plaintive, puzzling and deeply affective Shore Bird that perhaps captures something of the exquisite yet elusive, poignant yet empty, relationship that obtained between the poet and her muse: “She was Elisabeth. I, the hundefräulein. No More.” That seems so definitive, so cold, so categorical, reminiscent of “a cog, however insignificant, in the glory machine.” And yet the last verse of Shore Bird speaks to a bond that was deeper than a contract, an agreement: Nowadays I lament the rare piper fragile and tenacious, who played on the shifting line between wave and sand. Like all good elegies the reader is left touched and unsettled. The Hundefräulein Papers is not a trip down memory lane, hagiography, celebrity portrait or self-justifying rumination. It is, rather, an exquisite evocation of a time and a relationship whose mystery is being reverently and rigorously pursued.

–Michael W. Higgins is visiting senior executive in residence at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is a former president of St. Thomas University –The Telegraph Journal, Jan. 30, 2010

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