The Arts: Poetry            The Hamilton Spectator         Nancy-Gay Rotstein

You'll thank me for telling you about poet

Gary Smith
Hamilton Spectator
September 14, 2002

You never know who you're going to meet at the ballet. Take Nancy-Gay Rotstein as a case in point.

A slight, handsome woman with a passion for the arts, she is a compulsive poet who speaks from the soul.

She writes because she has to. Not for profit, not for gain. And the words that sing from her heart create elegant sound bytes, sparse images that are muscular and brilliantly orchestrated.

Family, music, art - these are subjects Rotstein places under the close focus of her mind's microscope.

In her latest book, This Horizon And Beyond, Poems Selected And New, the Toronto-area poet liberates jewels of poetry that shiver the imagination. You are drawn into her brilliant constructions, made to feel her layers of nuance. The book becomes a bedside companion, a wise friend who offers balm for pain and revives the aching spirit.

"When I would think I was sleeping, words and phrases would come to me," Rotstein says. "I learned to trust those images that chased me in the dark. They would become my starting point for work the next day."

Rotstein, who has also written a superbly insightful novel, Shattering Glass, is a lawyer. "Law is a fine line between chaos and order," she says, sipping coffee. "It gives you extra perspective on the vagaries of human nature. That's what a poet seeks to do, too."

Rotstein doesn't operate a law practice she goes to every day, but her profession provided an important background she feels has focused her writing.

"The more you learn about the world, the more you can bring a background to ideas you want to express. It's an extra vantage point, that's all."

Rotstein turned down an offer to join a large law firm in order to serve the arts. She was a member of the Canada Council with the likes of Celia Franca, Maureen Forrester and Ken Danby.

"These were people for whom the arts were vital. Serving with them was a great privilege."

She sees the artist as the individual in society who just might fall out of the constellation of stars and not be noticed. "You can simply lose a generation," she says. "All that talent wasted." Rotstein speaks of the fragility that haunts our troubled lives in the wake of terrorism and uncertainty.

"All of us feel fragile, powerless to control events. Poetry gives us something to hang on to, a deeper vision to sustain and console the spirit."

Rotstein admits she doesn't think of the people who will read her book when she writes. She shares her most private thoughts because she must.

"You live with a book. You are compelled to write it, and mostly you write directly from your soul. I hope, for instance, those who share my thoughts in This Horizon And Beyond will find a personal place of their own, a place of clarity, comfort and strength." If Rotstein's writing is personal, and mostly it is, it is not inaccessible to anyone willing to unleash private feelings of their own.

For Tracy, for example, a poem written for her daughter, is a work of devastating honesty. A mother watches her daughter sleeping in a crib, protected by a pink and white world of innocence and security. She looks to the future when her tiny child, scrubbed and pure, must confront the reality of a world beyond the nursery.

In 12 almost breathless lines, Rotstein encapsulates the hopes and fears of parents confronted by the realization they won't always be there to wrap their child in dreams. It's a beautiful image of a mother both loving and letting go. And it's a poem that reveals Rotstein's passionately beating heart.

Everything about these poems is personal. Whether they reveal Rotstein's travels in China in 1980, one of the first foreign writers admitted on a special literary visa, or exploring interior journeys of the human soul, they touch us. "For me, there must always be a compelling reason to write. A thought or connection must be captured."

Irving Layton has said about Rotstein: "(Her) poetry has a distinctive voice. It's not the kind of poetry written today and that is very much in her favour. It gives to her poems a kind of hardness or toughness that makes for permanence, enabling her to take a lonely and significant place that is uniquely her own."

Layton is right. She is an original. it is not just words she writes, fashioned to fit a space on a page; they are words from the soul, given brilliant flight in the rare imagination of a daring spirit.

Her book, Shattering Glass, has been translated into eight languages, earning a large international readership. If you know her work, you'll probably thank me for reminding you of how important it truly is. If you've never read one of her poems, dip into This Horizon And Beyond.

Like me, you'll probably become an acolyte willing to worship at her font of imagination.


Nancy-Gay Rotstein © 2002