The Marta Poems tell a gripping tale

The Marta Poems

by Susan J. Atkinson

Review by Laura Byrne Paquet

Ethereal, haunting, earthy, gut-punching – if I had a poet’s mastery of language, I’d be reaching for words like these to describe a new collection by Old Ottawa South’s Susan J. Atkinson. Atkinson is a poet and Grade 1 teacher at Charles H. Hulse Public School. The Marta Poems is her debut poetry collection.

Those who think they “don’t like poetry” may be in for a pleasant surprise, as the 79 pieces are linked by the gossamer strand of a single life. Together, they tell a tale as gripping as a full-length novel. Instead of chapters, the reader gets glimpses into key points in the life of the title character. Atkinson expertly distills the emotions and fallout from each experience – a birth, a fire, a journey, a chance meeting – to their essence. Little that’s extraneous remains, so the poems evoke moments in time that linger in the memory like photographs.

The pieces are divided into five chronological sections, beginning with Marta’s birth in Poland in 1925. The following two decades see her buffeted by forces ranging from family tragedies to the Second World War. (One note: Don’t read the table of contents first – it gives away much of the story.)

Through Atkinson’s words, we feel strangers’ kneecaps digging into us as an overloaded railcar trundles across Siberia, packed with unwilling human cargo. We feel the deck rocking beneath our feet as a ship crosses the Caspian Sea and the humid rain on our faces during a Rhodesian storm. Then, as war’s end brings Marta to England, we feel the stirrings of hope mixed with distrust and weariness. Marta is only 23 when she sets sail once more, this time to Canada, but it feels to us – and to her – like she has already lived several lives.

Her years in Canada unfurl without the political upheavals of the early section of the book, yet the vicissitudes of a quiet life are no less dramatic in Atkinson’s hands. Love waxes and wanes, dreams flare and fade, months turn into decades. Beloved items – a battered diary, a leather satchel – become totems anchoring Marta in the past, present and future. And even those items, with Marta’s passing, are drained of the power they once held.

Grief runs deeply through many of these poems, but readers’ reactions are hard to predict. Some may find the thoughtful reflections on heartbreak uplifting, while others may be brought low. While loss is a recurring theme, it is far from the only one linking these poems. Many pieces capture moments of joy, sparked by events as simple as building a sandcastle or gazing at stars. Just like life, together they’re a densely woven fabric of light and dark, sun and rain, peace and sorrow.

Atkinson explains in the notes that Marta was a real person, but her story has been fictionalized to make it more universal. Whether you read the pieces all in one evening to immerse yourself in Marta’s story or savour them a few at a time, I suspect you’ll agree that Atkinson has achieved that end. Marta lived and died in specific circumstances, but the tiny details Atkinson has used to evoke them – a moonlit goodbye, a scrap of fabric, a thick slab of buttered bread, a cardinal alighting on a tree – will have resonance for many.

The poems vary in length, style and voice, each finely tailored like the clothes Marta sews. Even if you think you don’t like poetry, try this collection on for size. You might find it fits you.

The Marta Poems are available through or, better yet, you can shop local at Perfect Books, Black Squirrel Books, Books on Beechwood, Octopus Books and Coles Bookstore in Billings Bridge.

Laura Byrne Paquet is a freelance writer and editor living in Old Ottawa South.

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