on Catherine Jenkins
There is an instructive epigraph to one of Catherine Jenkins’ poems in the collection blood, love and boomerangs (1999). It comes from the poet Nicole Markotic, and it reads, “men like to believe in drowning as a solution to love.” Catherine Jenkins’ women characters spurn this male belief, yet are conscious at the same time of its ever-present possibility.
Jenkins’ women are unlike Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: they do not succumb to the seductive pull of water. Instead, they stand at one remove from, observe and comment on the power-based machinations of human relationships that have allowed for the age-old literary device of drowning as a fitting escape for women doomed not to love. In the poem “drowned dollies,” the repetition of the phrase “drowned dollies in the wading pool/plastic cadavers in the evening light” both recalls the insistent motion of water and waves, and simultaneously offers a rebuke to the inevitability of this death. The narrator of “drowning,” who “expect[s] the undertow to take [her] half hoping it will” leaves the possibility open that she will make a different decision, just as the narrator of “there is something about a red-haired woman” comments on a man’s need to always find a “glimpse of red hair” under the water, even though it is never really there, always “elusive.”
In her long-awaited first novel, Swimming in the Ocean (2002), Jenkins journeys back to this well-known territory adding layers of meaning impossible to achieve in her spare and intense poetry. The novel follows a woman on a Caribbean vacation as she looks back over the past decade and a half of relationships she has had with men, beginning in her early twenties. There is a commonality in these relationships, besides their unhappy endings, and that is the need of many of the men to control the narrator. This lack of control over her own life is signalled, not surprisingly, by language about submerging under water: “I will myself further forward,” says the narrator early in the novel, attempting to swim in a freezing lake on a dare from an abusive boyfriend, “An immediate paralysis sets in from the waist down… I finally turn, slosh back to shore…” Unable to swim, the narrative figures her memories of her relationships with men through the lives of the various sea creatures she encounters on her Caribbean vacation. Finally, at the end of the novel, the narrator’s journey is complete and she too is able to “fall into the water…watch bubbles travel, ride to light, to air, and then follow them, bursting and elated.”
The “unaffected intensity and ruthless honesty” which a Globe and Mail reviewer remarked upon in a review of blood, love and boomerangs is a fair assessment of Catherine Jenkins’ place in the contemporary Canadian literary world. A meticulous craftsman, she often takes years between books, honing her language to the point where it is crystal clear, like the bodies of water she so often comes back to. Not particularly interested in fashionable literary trends, Jenkins works hard at her vocation, giving regular readings and wowing audiences with her forthright and dramatic vocalization of her emotion-filled poems and fiction.
- Richard Almonte, July 2002