Embracing the complexity

By Amy Reiswig, June 2012

Madeline Sonik moves gracefully from the small and intimate to the celestial.

Since ancient times, there has been a connection between poetry and prophecy. Poets were seen as accessing something beyond themselves and the mundane mortal world and acted as a channel or conduit for words beautiful, wise and oracular. It seems fitting then that Madeline Sonik’s new book of poems, The Book of Changes (Inanna, April 2012), is both named and styled after what some consider the oldest extant book of divination: the I Ching.

The poems in this collection take their titles from the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, beginning, appropriately, with “The Creative.” While some might see it as odd to base a book of often highly personal poetic expression around an externally-imposed structure, the key in many ways is suggested by hexagram 2’s title: “The Receptive.” For being receptive means incorporating, being open to influence and making it your own. As Sonik writes: “I taste the treasures/ of your apples/ words hanging over a fence…I place them in the pockets/of my ears.” 

During the writing process for this collection, says Sonik, “There were certain questions I had. I’d throw the coins [for the I Ching] to get some kind of a response and write from that.” We are talking in her basement writing studio. Sunlight from the small window slants across her black curls. “Constraint inspires creativity,” she says. “People think creativity is just a free-for-all, but without that frame, you can’t be creative. It’s like a garden. And using that oracle really requires you to think.” 

Indeed, my own first experience of the I Ching offered the enigmatic advice of “Progress like a hamster,” and I wondered what that could mean. “It’s not reductive,” Sonik stresses, “and a theme in my life is non-reductiveness, trying to embrace the richness and complexity of everything.”

Sonik knows a thing or two about cultivating—and reaping the harvest from—complexity. Currently teaching writing techniques at UVic, she is a woman with a curious, hopping mind that resists resting in any one place. With four degrees—a bachelor’s in English and history, MA in journalism, second MA in creative writing and a PhD focused on creative writing education—she has published widely in literary journals and has published books across genres: a previous book of poetry (Stone Sightings, Inanna 2008), short stories (Drying the Bones, Nightwood Editions 2000), fiction (Arms, Nightwood Editions 2002), children’s literature (Belinda and the Dustbunnys, Hodgepog, 2003), and non-fiction (Afflictions & Departures, Anvil Press 2011). 

That last one landed on the longlist for the 2012 BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and earned Sonik a place as finalist for the much-coveted Charles Taylor Prize. “Did you see I’m in the New Yorker?” she says excitedly, flipping the March 26 edition open to a double-page spread on the Charles Taylor finalists, complete with colour photos. It mentions that Sonik “envisions Afflictions & Departures as the first of a trilogy connecting the dots between personal experience and universal truths, and quotes the jury: “She captures crystalline moments of childhood memory and links them in a daisy-chain with corresponding events of the tumultuous societal change taking place outside her home.”

That conscious pursuit of richness means that, just as the walls of Sonik’s basement room are covered with bookshelves organized according to themes such as psychology, women’s studies, education, writing, myth and fairy tales, the poems in her latest book cover all of that expressed in minute observation and philosophic reflection, from the small and intimate to the celestial. For example, the “eyelash legs” of a ladybug lead to expansive existential contemplation: “this is how/she creates the world/how the world/ was created/ in a fumbling for firm footing.” Sonik also offers the personally intimate (“Your heart against my back/peeling the damp bark/off pink arbutus flesh”) and sometimes very raw, autobiographical memories of everything from childhood to childbirth, including an illness—what in Hexagram 39 “Obstruction” she calls the “white haloed tumour/…contained as the breath/ I am told/ to hold”—and even attempted rape. Others are based on wordplay or poetic form such as haiku and pattern poetry in the vein of George Herbert’s “Easter Wings.” 

Though she claims to be an introvert, through her poetry Sonik invites us to know her very personally, including her struggle with a mysterious diagnosis. Diagnosed in 2005 with what they thought might be cancer of the sinuses and with a tumor in the lung, she was told she didn’t have much time left (although it turned out not to be cancer). Therefore bypassing ego in her writing has become much easier. “I’ve already died” she laughs. “I’ve already gone through that whole process. I’ve prepared. My bags are packed and I’m ready to go.” 

In fact, with an abiding interest in Jungian psy-chology—“I’d love to go to Zurich and study at the Jung Institute, if I live to 65!”—Sonik finds the genre of poetry to be particularly useful as that conduit to something beyond self.

“Poetry is a different place in your psyche that you go to,” she explains. “Often when I’m writing poetry I don’t know what the next word is going to be. There’s not so much ego-consciousness involved.” Like her dreams, which she calls “informative,” her poems also are a means of accessing information she didn’t expect. “When you read them back, you see things you didn’t put there. It’s giving me something larger than my little self was able to see.” In fact, she has created a new kind of oracle. “Now if I have a question, I can throw the coins and refer to my own poems and learn something,” she laughs. 

But that’s something I also thought of doing—throwing the coins to see which of these poems they would lead me to and what lessons I can glean for my own life. For as personal as they are, Sonik’s poems are also about shared experience, particularly the experience of living as a woman and as a complex human being in this beautifully, painfully complex world. In many ways she is therefore inviting us to know ourselves, and what she writes of herself in “Innocence (the Unexpected)” is something we should all do more often: “I marvel at the mystery of me.”

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig’s best guess for “progress like a hamster” is that she should stuff her cheeks and hide under her bedding.