Review: Shawnigan poet paints mother in words

Weston is celebrating the life of her artist mother, Ethel Jarmain

Shawnigan author Joanna Weston has written ‘A Bedroom of Searchlights’. (book cover)

By Dave Margoshes

Joanna Weston’s first book of poetry, A Summer Father, published in 2006, was a celebration of the life of her soldier-poet father, a father she barely knew except through the words of his own poetry.

Born in 1938 in rural Kent in England, Weston was still a toddler when her parents divorced, and then her father was permanently taken from her when he died in the Battle of Normandy in 1944. But Major John Jarmain left behind a manuscript of poems that were published at war’s end. Those poems became young Weston’s lifeline to her father, and they inform her own poems in A Summer Father, published more than 60 years after his death.

Now, a decade later, Weston is celebrating the life of her artist mother, Ethel Jarmain, in another book of poetry A Bedroom of Searchlights. Jarmain struggled on her own during wartime and the post-war era to raise two children and keep alive her own life as a painter. That hard-scrabble life is nicely depicted in a poem called “Necessities”: “the balance of art/with piano/achieved by forgetting/to iron shirts and dresses/beds made after lunch/when morning light had failed/and hunger found attention.”

This is stripped-down poetry, devoid of the niceties of capitalization and punctuation, those signposts to meaning essential to prose and usually found in poems as well. Instead, Weston relies on building blocks of images that, when taken together, for, a complete picture.

This is most effective in poems about her mother the artist, like “In Colour”: “her fingers splash vermilion/aquamarine cobalt on paper/she paints bullets/in striations of moonlight/to exorcise the shadows/that loom on her wall.”

Though Ethel and John were divorced, the dead soldier/poet remained a presence in Westson’s mother’s life — at least as Weston remembers or imagines it, in “To Find”: “her man got lost under a French sky/mislaid under the rise of ack-ack guns/she looked for him in newspapers/but found strangers in his uniform/discovered his bones under green turf/and sculpted them into his children/hung his eyes in their faces/then set his hands over theirs/she carved herself an archive of him.”

Now living in Shawnigan Lake, Weston has written and published children’s books as well as the two volumes of poetry. A Bedroom of Searchlights would be an appealing read for anyone who lived through the Second World War in Britain, and anyone who still mourns their lost mother. Oh, heck, anyone with a mother — and that includes just about everyone.

Dave Margoshes is a Saskatchewan poet, fiction writer and editor.

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