Tuesday, May 22, 2007



The Great Canopy by Paula Goldman
(GivalPress, Arlington, VA, 2005)

Life Under the Intimate Shade of Art and Myth: Paula Goldman’s The Great Canopy

Paula Goldman’s first book of poetry The Great Canopy won the Gival Press Poetry Award 2004. Prior to the selection of her book, Goldman was an award-winning poet with a list of impressive publications. The sixty-one poems in her collection draw on Greek and Roman mythology, the epic tale of Ulysses, and the artwork of great masters including Monet, Giacometti, and Caravaggio. It is a strong debut collection by Goldman excelling, in particular, at blending the narrative and lyrical poetic impulses.

At her best, Goldman’s art is in examining intimate emotional terrain. In the poem “Almost a Love Poem,” Goldman begins,

I don’t know how to write a love poem, I unravel them
                in my sleep beside you, waking with dread you

might not be here. Married as many years as Penelope
                missed Ulysses’ muscled body, I imagine “hazards

more awful than real. I travel the map of your face, my
                finger tracing the wide bridge of your noble nose,

your high forehead, rising each year, your hair thinning
                to a few unruly silver reeds.

Allusion and the orientation of the poem into a larger historic and mythic context is a characteristic of Goldman’s work that shines when she marries it with personal content. The close attention to wry detail, seen here in the description of hair loss, is another delightful characteristic of Goldman’s work. Goldman sustains this potent blend of tools in this poem through eighteen stanzas introducing a wide range of personal and allegorical details. In the end, she returns to Penelope. The poem concludes,

                               That’s what frightened
Penelope the most, I think, sleeping alone on the edge

of a world. We stood under the huppa, the white flowing
canopy—you know what Sholom Aleichem said?

“You enter it living and come out a corpse.”

The conclusion of this poem points of course to the title and in many ways the poem embodies the overarching themes of the book. It is this great canopy of marriage, or metaphorically that which is entered in life and from which one doesn’t return until death, that this book is considering. Ironically, there is a poem within the collection that has the same title as the book, but that poem doesn’t carry the gravitas that this collection demands.

This is one of the challenges of this book: it needs to be pared back slightly -- perhaps to forty-eight or fifty-two poems. There are clearly weaker poems that could have been dropped to make the collection stronger and a more compelling in its vision. I believe this is one of the challenges for poets and editors today. Gival Press is one of the exciting small presses begun relatively recently and working to establish a strong reputation in the books that it is publishing. The strength of Goldman’s book as a winner of one of their contests is part of their success as a press. Still, some careful edits and the gentle guidance of a stronger editorial hand would have strengthened this book. I think this is something that we as poets need to ask for more from our editors and something that editors and publishers should offer in the spirit of loving-kindness.

In spite of this criticism, The Great Canopy is a fine book filled with many poems that are simply gems. The series, “The Empty Shelves: Berlin to Budapest by Train,” is a lovely sequences in the book. “Alberto Giacometti’s Wife” answers the age-old question of the price of art -- from a decidedly feminist perspective. The dramatic monologue, “Joan Confesses,” ends with a startling and imaginative twist that I found myself returning to time and time again. Here are the final seven lines,

                               The voices said
I must be good; I could not leave until
France was saved. How did I know they were angels?
How did I know my mother and father?
When I heard the harp’s sweet notes at court,
I smiled. They were wrong to call it heavenly
music. Yes, I’d do it again, as a man.

I found this haunting. The dramatic monologue and ekphrasis are favored forms of Goldman. She uses both to great effect in the collection, although the best poems overall are the ones in which she brings together her personal experiences with art and literary allusions. Hopefully, that is the trifecta that she will continue to mine for her second collection. Until that appears, read The Great Canopy and enjoy all that it has to offer.


Julie R. Enszer is a poet and writer living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One’s Own, Long Shot, the Web Del Sol Review, and the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. You can learn more about her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.


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