The Bigness of Small Poems – # 23 in a Series – Heidi Garnett’s Poetry of Witness

Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett, author of Blood Orange, Frontenac House, 2016. Photo: Frontenac House

Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett, author of Blood Orange, Frontenac House, 2016. Photo: Frontenac House


A TV screen flickers blue in a darkened living room.
A man sits on a back stoop with his dog.
He scans the sky for signs of thinning cracks,
something chipping in the sky’s brittle shell
with its egg tooth. A night heron, rune for soul,
pierces a minnow with its sharp eye.
The soul’s hunger is small, but precise.

Heidi Garnett, Blood Orange, Frontenac House Poetry, 2016

Poetry has brought me many gifts. Unexpected friendships later in life. Heidi Garnett has been one of those unexpected gifts. Her commitment to the craft of a poetry such an inspiration. And her support of my writing and encouragement when the muse turns her back and words die, dry leaves on Autumn Garry Oaks that refuse to fall. And the inspiration I receive from the power of her words. Oh, how I envy this line from Hatchling: The soul’s hunger is small, but precise.

How excited I was, after I came home from two weeks away, to find Heidi’s new book, Blood Orange, on my desk.  Inside it, a collision between the new world and the old. A German family uprooted by war, love disoriented as it finds its new north in prairie Alberta in the early 1950’s. A woman trying to put back the pieces war smashed apart. Using words to discover meaning and beauty from the heart’s ravaged harvest. A woman with forgiveness and love as her only map to find her way home beyond stubborn geography and the dislocations of violence.

This book is a tour de force. A poet’s book of changes, pulled stitch by stitch from the heart of a woman who admits she has never been much good/ at saying goodbye, never much good/ at accepting what can’t be changed. But then how does she find the courage in her poems, without flinching, to bring her goodbyes, her so many losses, vividly to life? And can I not imagine that these poems are anything but a testimony of acceptance, of something more than mere survival? Of finding a way to heal in spite of what can’t be changed.

What a triumph of the human spirit this book discloses. Utter proof of how she and her family honoured what she quotes in the first poem in her book, the famous imperative of her fellow countryman, Rainer Marie Rilke: You must change your life. Faced with what they could not change they changed what they could. At great cost, but they did. Hear that cost here in this poem:


My cupped hands make a poor hourglass.
Who am I to think time is my private plaything?
If I walk backwards out of life, mother,
will I find you beside the Minsky Stream
where we vowed to stay alive so the other might live?
Promises require extraordinary trust
and I’ve grown tired with remembering.
My daughter asks why we didn’t flee
before Russian troops broke through German lines.
A girl should not go naked into the world
until she has grown a third skin, a hymen
to wrap around herself. A sheet of rain
flaps over the lake and a willow holds light
the way a mother holds a newborn. I know
one can’t live on air alone, but you see how it is.
Hope stirs the mind into a swarm of wasps,
but a body is a frail thing, a house made of chewed paper
and sometimes, love is all one has left to give.

Heidi Garnet, ibid

The frisson I experienced from these words: A girl should not go naked into the world/ until she has grown a third skin, a hymen/
to wrap around herself. Something so true for a girl in Russian-occupied eastern Germany, now Poland, in 1945. Something so true still for women all over the world whether in war affected areas or not. Chilling.

The only way I could try to make sense of Heidi’s wartime experience, long before Blood Orange was published, was to write my own poem which I dedicated to Heidi in my poetry book, published one week after Heidi’s:

Her Father’s Wartime Portrait

falls out of her book of poems, The Horse Latitudes,
long after his last ship sank and long after
he swapped his German naval cap for a baker’s white hat
in Alberta.

Dead for years, what haunts him the nights he appears
at the foot of Heidi’s mother’s bed and says nothing? Love, this silence –
straight and sure as the tracks torpedoes make.

The sense the North Sea is
is nonsense for a sailor, swimming for his life at night inside it.

So many ways, in words and waves, to drown.

The sense a father is
is nonsense for a girl awake in her bed in her mother’s room,
listening to her mother’s breath, in the other bed, muffled
under the Russian officer – war’s rough weight.

So many ways, at night, to drown.

The sense a divided country is
is nonsense for a man who travels eight hundred kilometers
to rescue his wife and three-year-old daughter
inside it.

The sense Alberta is
is nonsense in the dreams a wife and mother
dreams  of 1945, eastern Germany.

So many ways, in war, to stay alive.
The sense,  for a little girl, a circus is
is madness for an elephant, four feet

balanced on a stool.

Richard Osler from Hyaena Season, Quattro Books, 2016

What an eye opener for me, growing up with the winner’s side of the story from World War II, to hear about the suffering, incredible suffering of the other side. A balancing. And how this next huge, small poem of Heidi’s, makes such images out of that suffering:


Mother braids my hair
with braids of smoke.
She plaits the strands
into scorched ropes and
ties them together
with ribbons of fire.
She wraps me in a wet sheet
kisses me on the cheek
and cries, Run!

Heidi Garnett, ibid

What an example of the fine poetry inside Heidi’s book. And a great example of a poem completely its own but with the slightest echo of another poem inside it. This wonderful family tree poems belong to. The echo I hear is from Charles Simic, also a survivor of war, born in 1938 in Yugoslavia who later, became an American. The power of witness. Only if these poems of witness could help end war!

    My mother was a braid of black smoke
    She bore me over the burning cities.
    The sky was a vast and windy place for a child
to play.
    We met many others who were just like us.
They were trying to put on their overcoats with
arms made of smoke.
    The high heavens were full of little shrunken
deaf ears instead of stars.

Charles Simic (1938 – ) from The World  Doesn’t End,  Harcourt Brace & Company, 1985

Celebrated Canadian master poet Patrick Lane (1939 – ), in his comment on the back cover of Heidi’s book says this about Blood Orange: As fine a book as you will find this year. Lane is not one to give praise lightly. Trust him. Buy this book!







  1. Rosemary Griebel
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful homage to an exquisite book. My thanks to you, Richard, for writing this post; and to you, Heidi, for your honest eye and ability to express the inexpressible.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much Rosemary. Your input always appreciated. Best, Richard

  3. Liz
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I absolutely agree, Heidi’s book is stunning

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Hi Liz. Great to be in touch and for such good reasons! Yes, Heidi’s book so fine. So well crafted. Heidi and I are going to try for 31 poems in January again! Hope you might join us as you can! I am not traveling so can buckle down! All best, Richard

  5. Posted November 27, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Delighted to meet Heidi in the garden the other evening, pruning her roses in the unexpected warmth of a November evening, we chatted, and she said come around after you finish walking the dog and I will give you a copy of my book. It sits beside me here, waiting to be uncovered, waiting to break my heart again. I’m so excited for Heidi, and for you, Richard, this incredible gift of poems on paper in the hands of some you may never know. Blessings and grace, dear poet friends of mine. xoxo

  6. Richard Osler
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    L-A! Thank you. Without readers we’re done! Thank you for being a fine reader!

  7. Heidi Garnett
    Posted November 27, 2016 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Dear friends, how fortunate I am to be part of this incredible poetry circle. I feel buoyed by your comments, held lightly by your kind words. And Richard you, as always, the most generous of people. It is a privilege to know you my poetry brother.

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