Z is for Zwicky – A Poem from her 2020 Poetry Collection! And Hello to National Poetry Month!

Canadian poet Jan Zwicky. Photo credit: National Post 2012


Don’t let grief frighten you.
Standing outside, in the mind,
its silhouette is winged and cavernous.
But what brought you here: is past.
No need to lock the door.

Don’t let grief frighten you.
Bring it in to sit down by the fire.
In the hearthlight, you will see its face
is human, its hands
are empty like your own.

Jan Zwicky from Fifty-Six Ontological Studies, Barbarian Press, 2020

Canadian poet Jan Zwicky is one of our Canadian literary treasures. A philosopher, a musician, a translator, a former professor, she takes these specialties and brings them so alive in her non-fiction writing and her poetry! Maybe a good sobriquet for her would be: poet polymath! To see a previous blog post on Jan please click here.

What else sets her apart is her collaborations with Barbarian Press one of Canada’s most outstanding creators of limited-edition letterpress books based in Mission, B.C. The husband and wife team who run Barbarian, Jan and Crispin Elsted are longstanding friends of Jan and her poet and letterpress book-loving husband, Robert Bringhurst who has also been published through Barbarian.

Barbarian has published at least two limited edition runs of Jan’s books including the most recent in 2020: Fifty-Six Ontological Studies. In 2000 they published 21 Small Songs, an exquisitely distinctive small chapbook. Books as art objects! (Another specialty press but with a broader trade-book presence, Gaspereau Press published one of Jan’s most celebrated books Wisdom & Metaphor in 2003 which has become a collector’s item and in 2006 published the full-length collection Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences.

The word disorientation came up this morning as my dearheart Somae and I were having our morning coffee. The disorientation we are feeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. A disorientation that has a strong dose of grief in it for me. Grief at all that has been taken by Covid-19 and also the griefs of deaths of loved ones from cancer and the grief over climate change, a rise in prominence of authoritarian regimes and a breakdown of kindness and respect for others all over the globe.

Then, this lovely re-orientation I am experiencing through Jan’s poem Lullaby! What an antidote to grief! Just what the doctor ordered. And this line, oh, this line: But what brought you here: is past. And its construction. The colon after here! The brilliance of that. How it breaks and enriches the line! And the power of the imperatives; how they affect the grammatical mood of the poem! Don’t let, don’t let and no need to and Bring it in! These punch like moments to knock out grief! And love the paradox of a title for these punchy sentences: Lullaby!

And this gem of a small poem puts me in mind of this poem by the great American poet Denise Levertov, especially when I replace “sorrow” with “grief”:

To Speak

To speak of sorrow
works upon it
moves it from its
crouched place barring
the way to and from the soul’s hall –
Out in the light it
shows clear whether
shrunken or known as
a giant wrath –
at least, where before

its great shadow joined
the walls and roof and seemed
to uphold the hall like a beam.

Denise Levertov from Selected Poems, New Directions, 2002

Thank you Jan (and Denise)!


  1. Liz
    Posted April 14, 2021 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    This post is so timely in this time of collective grief and these strange days.
    A lullaby to be sure, a soothing into peace.
    Liz xx

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted April 23, 2021 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks Liz. Adam Grant in the New York Times talked about “languishing”, what we are all experiencing in Covid! Glad this poem might help with that!

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