Class Acts
poems by Katerina Fretwell

144 Pages
October 10, 2013
Poetry All Titles



Class Acts poems by Katerina Fretwell

Class Acts, Katerina Fretwell’s seventh poetry (and art) collection, establishes a posthumous relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft, the first suffragette, whose works have carved a path for feminists for hundreds of years. In the first section of the collection, “Our Mirroring Centuries,” Fretwell uses Wollstonecraft’s life and writings as a springboard for an imagined dialogue with her, or a monologue inspired by her. In the second and third sections, the poems are responses to Wollstonecraft that explore “brokenness” as a broad theme—in the world in general, and in the poet’s own world. In the final section, “The Other Half,” Fretwell goes back to the first part of her life, the fifties, and focuses on how it was different—in some ways better and yet still flawed. Fretwell is well versed in the circumstances of Wollstonecraft’s life: her husband, acquaintances, social circle and key events. It is on these that she bases many of the dialogues and monologues, along with her own life story, courageously referring to elements of her own life, some of which are highly personal. This knowledge and reflection are assets to the collection, combining the layers the author brings to the work with a call to the reader for an awareness of her own role within the poetry.
Poetic forms mirror themes: repetitive pantoums underscore female restraints in Wollstonecraft’s time; prose poems vocalize middle class fear; sestinas reflect alcoholic, cloistered socialites; blank, staggered verse mimics desperate penury.
Class Acts
Katerina (Vaughan) Fretwell, poet, artist, journalist, reviewer, and former registered social worker, is in the League of Poet’s Feminist Caucus, Canada pen, and the Writers Union of Canada. Her poems have been published in numerous North American journals and anthologies, including Prism International, Descant, Mix Six, Dry Wells in India, Rampike, and The Pittsburgh Quarterly. Her “Quartzite Dialogues” poems were set to music by Michael Horwood & mounted twice at the Festival of the Sound in 1999 and at 25th Anniversary, 2004, and at the Takefu Music Centre in Japan, 1999. Her sixth volume of poetry, Angelic Scintillations, a dialogue with her ancestor, the 17th century Welsh mystic poet, Henry Vaughan, was published by Inanna in 2011. She sang choral tenor in operatic productions, studied piano and voice, and lives near Parry Sound, Ontario, with her calico cat.

Class Acts
Reviewed by John B Lee, Verse Afire

“Feisty females filled both sides of my family … immersed … in a poetic dialogue with the great Mary Wollstonecraft … My inherited radar for injustice led me into social work … later inspired by the canon of feminist poets … I began to witness through poetry and art, the workings and failings of our culture.”

So writes Katerina Fretwell in her  Afterword to her brave collection of sometimes autobiographical, sometimes socially imperative poems. Whether she is writing of incest, alcoholism, sexual politics, gender awareness, body image, or the decline of idealism in an increasingly realistic young woman she never shies away from the rawness of the most naked self. The inner self stripped of illusion, living “life on the rocks” where the rocks are both ice in a drink and the hard rock face of a perilous coming shore through a psychic storm brought on by an over-fondness for the drink.

It is in the opening poems wherein she takes on the persona of eighteenth century’s Mary Wollstonecraft and wherein she reveals her most courageous association with strong women struggling against the patriarchy to establish their right to be a fully realized human being free from the constrictions of a culture dominated by the worst kind of men. Later in the volume, she champions all humanity, not only the bluestocking classes. In her long poem “Requiem for the People: O North Americans 1-5” she impugns the distorted American dream wherein “socialism is a dirty word,” the Tea Party has hijacked the agenda, money dominates every aspiration, and the killing machine requires the people to “pledge allegiance to a trillion–dollar defense budget.”

Coming of age in the fifties, and struggling with the worst and the best aspects of contemporary technologies, in her youth she laments the failure of words to liberate her gender from the treasons of the heart, though she grabbed ‘the sextant, compass,/ gavel, stethoscope, hardhat,/ & slide rule.” In her career as a social worker, she learns to temper her ideals in order to do her job so she is not simply ‘caroming crisis to crisis’, and she emerges from the morass of alcoholism to build a life worthy of an artist triumphant in strong language that names the worst as well as the best that is in us. In the end, Class Acts is a class act.

John B. Lee is Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity Poet Laureate of Norfolk County for Life


Class Acts, Toronto: Inanna, 2013
Reviewed by Heather Spears, Arc Poetry Magazine

"I’ve always preferred lyric poetry, and these poems are anything but. The stanzas are straightforward, the breaks seemingly arbitrary, the momentum dependent on strings of substantives cascading down a rough bed. There is hardly any imagery. The lines are abbreviated, the matter presented in chunks without articles, so condensed that reading them is like cutting your way through a hedge. It reminds me of Thomas Hardy—if he had an ear it was different to anyone else’s.

But despite my bias toward the lyric, I found Fretwell addictive. There is a reliable continuity—reliable because her voice is genuine. The audible impact of the poems stays with me—I hear again the broken lines, the headlong plunges to stops that jolt like a series of admonitions.

I am immensely impressed.

This is surely one of the most authentic voices in contemporary Canadian poetry. There is no embellishment, no false humility, no search for a nicer way to say something—or a less nice way. Fretwell is not provocative for the sake of provocation, or funny for the sake of a cheap laugh. I am absolutely convinced.

Some poems do read like tracts, with predictable political and moral views about the poor, Aboriginal people, and the violation of women. Others, recounting experiences from childhood and youth or describing family, can house a whole traumatic sequence—even a whole life, enough material to have plumped out a novella—crushed into one page. Again reminding me of Hardy. Things happen. They come at you staccato, like thrown fireworks.

This is the record of a particular life, bewildered but upheld and carried forward by honesty, humour, and innate optimism. Fragments of Fretwell forced into unique, delightful, ornery poems.

The poet calls herself Mary Wollstonecroft’s ‘cohort and acolyte,’ drawing parallels between their two lives (Fretwell did something similar in Angelic Scintillations, making links between herself and poet-ancestor Henry Vaughan). Class Acts compares post-Revolution Paris to the present, weighing the subtle (and the blatant) subjugation of women then against now. She mourns with Mary the failure then to include women in the new freedom (and at the same time projects an implicit disappointment in how little has changed): “your bloodied hemline, observer-Mary.” Here is a rare, musical line: “You keened across the Channel, Mary,” followed by rough text (it won’t scan): “asked: How did such novel ideals / bleed out, severed at the neck?” Class Acts brings to life Fretwell’s girlhood in unerring retro: “knelt to scrub the graying linoleum, / served Sunday stew and peach pie / in your salmon-sided home… in the Frigid / aire Fifties.”

The reader is warned: to refresh my background, I read up conscientiously on Mary Wollstonecraft, only to find the information I wanted in a dense 6-page Afterword. It is a misplaced Preface. Read it first. Another preference: I would have liked to see included in the book more than four of Fretwell’s paintings, which have the same clarity, intelligence, and good serious fun as her poems.

Artist and writer Heather Spears lives in Denmark. Her work has won numerous prizes, including the Pat Lowther Memorial Award three times, and the Governor General’s Award for Poetry."


“Class Acts is a powerful critique of inequality past and present, turning  through Katerina Vaughan Fretwell's dialogues with Mary Wollstonecraft, her own life experience and the poverty she encountered as a social worker in Halifax.  Fretwell explores the many facets of her ambitious project passionately, in a series of highly accomplished poems.”
- Elizabeth Greene, poet and author of Moving

“Katerina Vaughan Fretwell’s dazzling poetic trilogy Class Acts unites the personal and political through its highly charged, metaphor-making power.  In “Our Mirroring Centuries,” nineteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the author (“Kate”) become contemporaries in their longing for the restoration of the feminine body, mind, and spirit. “Class Actions” is a jazzy, blazing satire on the effects of corporate capitalism and its accompanying war machinery. The final section, “The Other Half,” explores personal trauma and transformation, as well as the author’s riveting experiences as a social worker  This well-crafted volume, complemented by Fretwell’s stunning watercolours, contains lyrics, prose poems, narrative poems, pantoums, shaped poems, dramatic monologues and more. Absorb these poems and be lifted through language to the place where anger tips over into wisdom, outrage at injustice into justice-making.”
- Susan McCaslin, poet and author of Demeter Goes Skydiving

"[Katerina Fretwell's] poetry is rich fare, highly spiced and saucy. ...I'm much impressed with the versatility in both form and subject, and with the vigour and  the wit and daring that always characterize [her] writing and are there in great abundance in Class Acts."
- Allan Briesmaster, co-publisher of Quattro Books, poet and author of Against the Flight of Spring

"[Class Acts] is charged and emotionally potent ... there is a natural intimacy created with Mary Wollstonecraft ... she becomes an important figure for our age! I will continue to savour the richness of the poems."
 - Clara Blackwood, poet and author of Arcana and Under the Dragon's Tail

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