White Album


poems by Rishma Dunlop, paintings by Suzanne Northcott

90 Pages
May 01, 2008

White Album charts the life of a young woman born in India in the late 1950s and growing up in Canada during an era of explosive change, both political and cultural. Set to some of the most popular and revolutionary music of the last half-century, White Album explores how the white noise of history—the chanting crowds, the gunshots, the guitar feedback—soundtracks the formation of a sense of self. Rishma Dunlop’s luminous poems present a moving memoir about what it means to live in an increasingly fractured and precarious, postcolonial world. The book resonates with the sounds of global music, including The Beatles, jazz, rock-and-roll, soul, gospel, ghazals, and zydeco. Blurring together diverse media, White Album blends the words of award-winning poet Rishma Dunlop with the paintings of acclaimed artist Suzanne Northcott. The result is an interdisciplinary collaboration and a groundbreaking collection—a montage of brilliant images, set to a score of electric, yet lyrical language. White Album is a unique and essential work of 21st-century poetry and visual art.

“White Album offers the impossible and necessary love song of our time, reaching half-way around the world, to gather the available fragments of disparate cultures, places, times, in a passionate, dissonant, gritty, open-eyed embrace. The lush interplay of image and text adds shivery, contrapuntal textures to this pleasurable read.”
-Di Brandt, author of Now Your Care

“Bracketed by the violence of the turbulent 1960’s and our current violence of terrorism and the war in Iraq, this extraordinary collection of poetry draws us into the life of a Canadian woman of Indian descent as she grows up in a hybrid world where she helps her father wrap his turban each morning and yet sings along with him to An English Country Garden; where she marries in a sari, yet grooves to Motown and irons her hair to look like Ali McGraw in Love Story. The collection is also luminously inflected with loss?the death of her father, the loss of her innocence, the loss of her daughters as they take up their own trajectories. Rishma Dunlop’s work, in the vein of writers like Wayson Choy and Judy Fong Bates, documents the life of those who were multicultural when Canada was overwhelmingly white and Anglo-Saxon. White Album speaks for that silent generation. By using the medium of poetry, Dunlop brings such a knife-like precision of language, such a concentrated clarity of image, to the life documented that it remains seared indelibly into our minds.”
-Shyam Selvadurai, author of Funny Boy

“Each lucid image shines in Rishma Dunlop’s fourth book of poems, White Album. Sometimes mournful, sometimes full of sass, her poems come marbled with song lyrics, and blended both with memories of a suburban girl’s coming of age and coming to grips with her heritage. Dunlop achieves her crystalline power by directing a bright white light on all her manifold subjects. Here is a poet who, with muscle, grace, and even a discography, fearlessly focuses on the contradictions of her time.”
-Molly Peacock, author of Second Blush

“In White Album, the paintings of Suzanne Northcott provide a provocative counterpoint and dialogue with the poetic texts. Northcott’s images are evidence of a unique way of seeing the human figure alongside abstract vistas of contemporary colour fields. Poignant and powerful, these paintings engage the viewer in visceral perceptions of spatial and temporal readings of selves and the world. A painter at the height of her talents, Northcott renders visible the tenuous, fragile nature of identities and the tentativeness of memory, all the while remaining connected to the joyousness of human existence.”
-Linda Lando, Lindalando Fine Art

About the Author

Rishma Dunlop is a Canadian poet, playwright, essayist, and fiction writer. She is the author of three previous books of poetry: Metropolis, Reading Like a Girl, and The Body of My Garden. Books as editor include: White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Motherhood and Red Silk: An Anthology of South Asian Canadian Women Poets. She is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including the Emily Dickinson Prize for Poetry, and she has been a finalist for the cbc Literary Prize in Poetry. Born in India, Dunlop was raised in Beaconsfield, Quebec. She is a professor at York University, Toronto, where she is Coordinator of the Creative Writing Program in English.

Suzanne Northcott is an interdisciplinary artist working with installation, video, painting and drawing. Themes of isolation and connection are woven through her history of collaborative work with poets, scientists and artists in other genres. Northcott’s art is widely exhibited and found in private, corporate and public gallery collections, including The Surrey Art Gallery permanent collection. Awards include the McIvor Bentall award and the Spillsbury Bronze medal. Northcott has lived in historic Fort Langley, bc, since 1996.

1 review for White Album

  1. InannaWebmaster

    Highlights from a book review of White Album in subTerrain
    Issue no. 51 (February 2009) Reviewed by Carolyne Van Der Meer
    “Coordinator of the Creative Writing Program at York University, Rishma Dunlop is an acclaimed and award-winning poet. She has authored or edited several collections including The Body of My Garden (2003), Reading Like a Girl (2004), Metropolis (2005), and White Ink: An International Anthology of Poems on Mothering (2007), among others. Her latest offering, White Album, is a unique juxtaposition of poetry and art, playing host as it does to the breathtaking and sensual work of BC artist, Suzanne Northcott, whose paintings both complement and highlight Dunlop’s verse. But the volume’s interdisciplinarity goes one step further in its inclusion of a unique treatment of music.

    Set up in four sections to mimic the Beatles’ four-sided White Album, each one carries the same numbered sections as the songs on the album. In this format, Dunlop explores one young woman’s life, from her birth in India to her youth and adulthood in Canada, experienced from the 1950s onward, during a time of great cultural and political change. Dunlop works with issues at the heart of this nation’s cultural consciousness and attempts to explore how these contribute to and/or form an individual identity. For those who identify points in time with music, this collection will be a journey of nostalgia; Dunlop capably evokes a longing for the past through her identification with the music of the era.

    Dunlop opens her collection with a prefatory offering called “Driving Home with Chet” that sets the stage for the musical interludes that will be heard throughout her poetry. Chet is jazz singer and trumpeter Chet Baker, against whose songs she pits scenes of the “every day”—“slate roofs, scatter-shots of sounds,” “cry of sirens, construction cranes, kids playing at dusk” neatly juxtaposed with notes of music: “as the horn comes into languor, slow notes suffusing the groin”; “metronomed scales of piano practice, staccato of footsteps”; and “refrigerator hum, the din of phones.” With “Chet’s last notes/long vibrato shaping pain into order,/in the last crease of light/thin as a knife,/a wish”, Dunlop achieves a rhythm in her final stanza that recalls Langston Hughes’ “The Trumpet Player” and it lines: “Upon what riff the music slops/Its hypodermic needle/To his soul”. This is a promising introduction to a collection that mostly delivers.

    “Journey” chronicles the family’s migration from India after it gained independence from Britain in 1947. The poem makes reference to the many Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who were killed in the ethnic cleansing that accompanied that migration. Dunlop emphasizes leaving the “warm palm of empire/to its furthest frost-bitten fingertips”—Canada, no doubt. From here, the subject and her family embark upon a new cultural journey that results in this collection’s infusion of music and musical references.

    “Naming” focuses on the importance of family, and the subject’s father’s love of gardening. Dunlop uses rich nomenclature here—the common names of flowers as well as their more formal appellations, alongside lyrics from Jimmie Rodgers’ “English Country Garden.” This drowns the reader in velvet sounds such as heart’s ease, flox, meadowsweet, lady smocks and hollyhocks, foxgloves and snowdrops. Dunlop is expert at arresting her readers with the sensuality of sound.

    But she is political too, using verse to capture the power of current events and their broader historical and cultural significance. In “Mission Apollo,” she describes social gatherings and their “perfumed coat piles in master bedrooms” against the backdrop Cold War experiments with “McNamara’s voice babbling,/the naked napalmed girl running/down the highway, skin in ribbons.” In “Libretto,” she evokes another such moment: the Klu Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama in 1963, with the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and The Who the scrim upon which this scene is projected. “Adagio” is written about the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” Vedran Smailovi, who, in 1992, played Albonini’s Adagio in G Minor for 22 days to honour the 22 who were killed in by mortar fire in the city’s marketplace as they lined up for bread. These poems are both stark and warm, infused with music that make their message poignant rather than cold and harsh.

    Other less political poems are equally powerful, such as “Hush” about a woman who is “slow to love” the man who fathers her child. In her everyday tasks of folding laundry, changing the baby’s diapers, feeding the cat and watching the backyard fill with snow, she discovers her passion for him, “sealed into cracked plaster with a kiss.” “What Begins Bitterly” is another example of such power, the height of feeling achieved with love and anger flowing through jazz notes –“in the music playing,/our living and our dying”.

    In this collection of 29 poems, there were only two that didn’t fire for this reviewer: “Love Field, 1963” and “Wild Thing.” The former is the longest poem in the volume, spanning a dense four pages. The poem explores the ritual of putting on a turban and the family’s involvement in such a ritual in an adopted home and country. Considered alongside Dunlop’s other rich work, the length of the poem and its lack of lyrical language make it much less powerful. “Wild Thing,” with its use of song titles and plays on partial lyrics, seems forced—very little of the material is Dunlop’s original voice. With the emotion she can evoke, why she should rely on others?”

    This review first appeared in SubTerrain, Issue no. 51 (February 2009) http://www.subterrain.ca. Reprinted with permission.

    Carolyne Van Der Meer is a Montreal journalist and editor who also teaches in McGill University’s Public Relations program. In addition, her poetry and short fiction have been published a number of Canadian and European literary journals.

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