By contributor Spenser Smith
Mildred Tremblay’s The Thing About Dying also has a thing or two to say about living; for every haunting line that compares cats to heartless murderers, there is another line that reflects on the grace found in the fragility of beating hearts. The book contains Tremblay’s lifetime worth of experience, molded into 84 poems that could only be written by someone who has witnessed countless friends and family members fall into the sleep of winter. Born in 1925 in Kenora, Ontario, Tremblay spent her life in many cities, including Victoria, Edmonton, Montreal, and Toronto, before settling in Nanaimo in 1970. She has won numerous awards for her writing, including the League of Canadian Poets Award, the Arc National Poetry Award, and the Orilla Award for Humour. Tremblay’s award-winning writing ability is apparent in The Thing About Dying, as each poem contains esoteric insight on the matters of life and death that Tremblay has masterfully decoded with her own everyday happenings.
The Thing About Dying is divided into two sections: “Death,” and “All These Loves.” In “Death,” Tremblay looks at the act of dying through heartache and humour. “Frozen Lakes” depicts a child who is walking across an icy lake with her father while witnessing his metaphorical walk towards death: “puffs of complaint / from my mouth / float into the air / I long to turn around, go back / soon he says, soon / but he hurries on / towards his old age / and death / and nothing I say / can stop him.” In “Parlours,” Tremblay reflects on the absurdness of going to funeral parlours as a child: “Parlours we called them / when I was a child / Funeral parlours / They were semi-attached to furniture stores / Say goodbye / to Aunt Mabel / while you shop / for table.” There is lucid insight and humour packed tightly into each poem, yet there is a simplicity in language that makes them fast and easy to digest, and that just might be what makes the book so powerful. Each word doesn’t need to be critically analyzed to feel the impact of the poem. One or two readings is all it takes to fully absorb the blow of Tremblay’s sharp and cunning lines.
In the second section, “All These Loves,” sexuality, love, and religion are the main topics. In “Juncos,” Tremblay imagines two birds on her porch as reincarnations of a monk and a nun: “little monk did you way / lay a little nun / reach under her cape / touch a little nipple / little nun did you kiss him / under the arbors / did you stroke his tail feather / was it lovely / was it worth a lifetime / pecking seeds / in the cold.” Throughout “All These Loves,” Tremblay skillfully transfers between the human and animal world, and blends them seamlessly in a way that powerfully explores what it means to be in love. In The Thing About Dying, love is shown to be the ultimate antidote to death, and is often what creates the beauty that can be found in dying.
The Thing About Dying is not the type of book that academics drool over. It is not full of tightly wound symbolism that takes years to pick apart and debate. It is a book of poetry that is simple to read, yet stunning in its wisdom and humour, covering the darkest of subjects. Tremblay passed away in October of 2014. In her poem “Reading Obituaries,” she leaves this message: “Loved ones, when you write my obituary, say this: Once, sitting still, she changed into a tiger.”