Devastation, Heartbreak, and Beauty Despite Everything in Jane Eaton Hamilton’s Poetry Collection LOVE WILL BURST INTO A THOUSAND SHAPES

I’ve been putting off reviewing Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes, a poetry collection by queer disabled Vancouver-based writer Jane Eaton Hamilton, because, as far as I can remember it’s one of two things I’ve read where I had a particularly challenging reading experience: it was one of those books where I could recognize the skill and beauty of the writing but I didn’t truly appreciate them myself. (For those of you wondering, the other book that comes to mind is Lisa Foad’s The Night Is A Mouth, which I review here). Has anyone else had this kind of experience? I guess it’s just knowing that something is not your thing but being able to recognize that it could be exactly someone else’s thing. I mean, I know this is true of Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes; there’s this glowing review on the Lambda Literary site and here’s another one from Prism Magazine and another one. Well, here goes nothing!

As the publisher’s blurb declares, this collection of poetry (Hamilton’s third) centres on themes of “art, children, marriage, breaking, rejoicing.” Let’s start with art. Those more familiar with the art world than me (which is, uh, probably most of the people reading this) will likely delight in being able to pick out details they recognize from famous artists’ work and lives in the poems Hamilton crafts from the perspectives of Suzanne Valadon, Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh, Edward Degas, Frida Kahlo, and Gauguin. Unfortunately the only artist of that group whose work I’m actually familiar with is Frida Kahlo. I did have an uncanny indescribable feeling while reading the titular poem of the collection (“Love Will Burst Into A Thousand Shapes: Frida Kahlo,” and actually a quotation taken from a letter to Diego Rivera from Kahlo) that the words somehow felt like how her art looks. I wonder if the other poems about artists felt that way for readers who know their art. Readers not familiar with the artists but interested in visual art (this is not really me, unfortunately) might also have fun looking them up and experiencing the art alongside the poems. I also felt “in on” the Gauguin poem, called “Woman With a Mango by Gauguin: Etta Cone” in reference to Gertrude Stein; Hamilton writes the poem in an uncanny reflection of Stein’s strange, mesmerizingly repetitive style and it is bang on:

Gertrude you are a Gertrude are a Gertrude

no one in Baltimore is a Gertrude anymore

If you can’t say anything nice about anyone

come sit next to me

you said

and I did

The next section of the collection following the one focused on artists is “Our Terrible Good Luck,” an apt oxymoron that encompasses the devastation that populates these poems on topics not often associated that kind of horror: motherhood and children. Oh boy, was this part of the collection hard for me. They’re just shattering to read: domestic abuse, the death of children, gun violence, mass murderers, the dark sides of motherhood, the physicality and sometimes grotesqueness of child birth. For me, they were painful and difficult to read, despite their being beautifully written. When I say devastating, this is what I mean:

In the month before they find your son’s body

downstream, you wake imagining

his fist clutching the spent elastic

of his pyjama bottoms, the pair with sailboats riding them

He’s swimming past your room toward milk and Cheerios

his cowlick alive on his small head, swimming

toward cartoons and baseballs, toward his skateboard

paddling his feet like flippers. You’re surprised

by how light he is, how his lips shimmer like water

how his eyes glow green as algae

He amazes you again and again, how he breathes

through water. Every morning you almost drown

fighting the undertow, the wild summer runoff

coughing into air exhausted, but your son is happy

He’s learning the language of gills and fins

of minnows and fry. That’s what he says

when you try to pull him to safety; he says he’s a stuntman

riding the waterfall down its awful lengths

to the log jam at the bottom pool

He’s cool to the touch; his beauty has you by the throat

He’s translucent, you can see his heart under

his young boy’s ribs, beating

as it once beat under the stretched skin of your belly

blue as airlessness, primed for vertical dive

HOLY FUCK, Jane Eaton Hamilton. I don’t remember the last time I read a poem so fucking sad and heartbreaking.

jane eaton hamilton

Jane Eaton Hamilton / image via

Although the last two sections “This New Country” and “Hands” are about intimacy, love, and sex, they often continue the deeply melancholic tone of the previous poems, but not always. I wonder too, if my sadness about the poems in the middle of the collection crept into my reading of the later poems. Maybe it would have been better to space out my reading of this collection more. Anyway, early poems in “This New Country” are joyful celebrations of brand new intimacy, like when Hamilton writes in the titular poem:

We packed our bags and named

our destination: each other

climbed into the car

the bus, the plane … I

couldn’t stop looking at you. We

didn’t know the new country even

four years later. … This country is

saturated with colour: azure

persimmon, indigo; with light:

dawn, the harsh light of noon, the washed

light of rain, dusk; with heat

We can’t send postcards. We are dumb

exiled to grace.

Unfortunately for my unrelentingly romantic heart, the poems about new love and sex and building a life together progress fairly quickly to, well, more devastation. In “Paris,” Hamilton writes

I didn’t understand the possibility of endings then, I didn’t know you

would soon say you weren’t in love with me and had been hungering

to leave for thirteen years. What time of day was it? Just after noon

and we were off the Montmartre bus

I was taking atmospheric photographs

I ambled down the street to meet you, my grin large

I remember wanting to lift you in the street and swing you

until love made us soar

I don’t know how to describe these poems except to keep using the adjectives devastating and heartbreaking all over again. It’s a testament to Hamilton’s writing talent that she is able to evoke such an achingly beautiful image of love — the “wanting to lift you in the street and swing you” — and at the same time that horrible feeling of looking back on your coupled happiness from the hindsight of the ruins of the relationship. This poem perfectly captures that feeling; reading it brought me back to when I felt that way at the end of my previous long-term relationship, and I have to say it’s not somewhere I really wanted to go, because it’s just painful.

When the next set of poems move into new intimacy again, the past hurt is not far behind, the melancholy persists: “I am too hungry. I am too huge. I am too slow. It is too late for me.” But Love Will Burst Into A Thousand Shapes, thankfully, doesn’t end there. The last poem, “The Lovers I Have Loved,” manages to integrate the sadness of the past while not allowing it to overshadow the beauty you still find the relationships that have passed and the lovers who have left you. It’s a delicate balance astutely achieved, as Hamilton ends the poem:

Whatever happened

(we did not tarry, we did not root)

I still walk toward them

and lay my palm upon each cheek

a lover’s palm on lovers’ cheeks

All this to say: Love Will Burst Into A Thousand Shapes will probably wreck you. And probably haunt you. And probably make you cry. But that’s not to say there isn’t astounding beauty within and outside the despair and sorrow.

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation (Nanaimo, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
This entry was posted in Canadian, disability, Lesbian, Poetry, Queer, Vancouver and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Devastation, Heartbreak, and Beauty Despite Everything in Jane Eaton Hamilton’s Poetry Collection LOVE WILL BURST INTO A THOUSAND SHAPES

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