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Review in the Canadian Book Review Annual

REVIEW: Intimate Distances

Lam explores larger metaphors of both chronological and emotional distance in a series of well-crafted poems.

Much of the book appears to be autobiographical, although Lam takes on different voices and points of view, which provides a nicely varied reading. The writer is interested in narrative, but also has a firm handle on sensual details, as in the opening piece, “Prelude”: “I carry everything / in my throat / behind a tender keyhole / veiled by skin / [...] Touch it. The voice / underneath flesh, / the breath / underneath voice, / underneath words / burrowed in bone.”

Her strongest poems deal with family history. In these, Lam has presented a familiarity with the details of her parents’ lives, as well as a strangeness, that is fresh and interesting. “Conception” paints a vivid picture of the couple, who are both doctors and yet maintain discomfort with both sexual and emotional intimacy. “A Doctor’s Wife” presents her mother’s transition from working professional to traditional mother: “In Canada, with her old Singer, she sewed blue curtains / for his windows, long lines of stitches / like the sutures she’d sewn on women’s bellies. / At dinner, she carved our roasts along the bone / with scalpel precision.”

Lam purports that certain distances can never be bridged. In “Father’s Day,” she writes of visiting her father’s grave at the same time as other families: “Mourners stand like us, limp-armed, / waiting beside gravestones / for a meaning that nudges our corners / but never comes in.” This theme is what gives much of the first four sections of the book their strength. Moving through an adult life, the author also includes a series of slightly surreal poems that deal with a bad marriage; in “Ring,” for example, she writes, “You tell yourself / this ring is / with their tight, wet grip / that crushed feet into lotuses / unlike ribbed walls of bone / fashioning spine, womb, breath / or the relentless / slide into another’s name.” The last section of the book is more optimistic (with pieces on friendship and motherhood) but also less compelling than poems in the previous sections, driven as they are by powerful stories and visceral details.