Every word should
Spare and precise, Nancy-Gay Rotstein's poems paint large, rich
pictures of life
The Ottawa Citizen
Feb 26 2002
At first blush, a poet brandishing a law degree might seem out of
place. The language of law, after all, is precise, without intended
irony, imagery or romance; a dialect void of distant train whistles
or wind-whipped parapets. In legalese, there is little room for
wiggling nuance, no demand for colour, and no need of hopeful prayer
for our children.
Nancy-Gay Rotstein, who will launch her new book of new and
previously-published poems, This Horizon And Beyond, tonight at the
National Library, crosses that seemingly polar bridge with an ease
that belies the careful attention she gives her work.
She didn't begin studying for her law degree until she was 39, and
by the time she finished realized she didn't want a legal practice.
Rotstein never did end up practising law, but as with her master's
degree in history, she says the training helped give her another
vantage point from which to view the world.
Her poetry is at once dense yet wholly accessible, with a
descriptive prowess that cuts to the quick. Her textures of colour,
light and history freeze moments to paper. She draws on readers'
emotions, while transporting them to unknown places that seem
familiar, from nearby ice fields to distant lands, from the dark
whirlpools of the Yangtze to the rummage sale down the street.
In his review of her first book, 1975's Through the Eyes of a Woman,
Irving Layton wrote that "Her ability to craft observations into
moving compositions and to confer significance on even the humdrum
and familiar, surprises and delights again and again. Her eyes see
clearly, and sometimes impishly, what others never see at all or
don't wish to."
And she does it with remarkable brevity. The difference between
prose and poetry, wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is that while prose
requires putting words in their best order, poetry demands the best
words in the best order. This Rotstein accomplishes, casting aside
the superfluous and refining the remaining with a surgeon's
exactitude, leaving in her wake surprisingly large, and extremely
"Every word should matter on the page," says Rotstein, "and say
something, either in feelings or emotions, and have that affect on
"What a poem does to that person's life is important. What really
makes writing work, whether it's poetry or prose, is that readers
find meaning in it for them."
Rotstein, who has served on the board of the Canada Council,
Telefilm Canada and the National Library Advisory Council, has
published three books of poetry and a novel, Shattering Glass.
Common themes invade her work, and her new book is divided into
segments, focusing on such groupings as family (she has three adult
children), geography and her travels. Her children could be our
children. Her geography is Canada's. She has a strong sense of
history, fair play and justice.
But other landscapes are unique. In 1980, after China's cultural
revolution, Rotstein was granted a literary visa to that country,
enabling her to travel alone to places few Westerners had seen
before. It was an opportunity made-to-order for the Toronto poet.
Her keen eyes took it all in. Her mellifluous poetry gave us the
images and emotions. Her third book of poetry, China: Shockwaves,
describes the turmoil, tensions and beauty of that trip.
"In this book," she says of the new collection, "I feel you really
have a Canadian's insight, into people, places, experiences and
"I don't think a poet should be talking about their own life," she
"They should be opening up their thoughts so that people can see
things in their life - in the reader's life - that has meaning for