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Memory’s Daughter

About this book

Published 2010 by the University of Alberta Press

ISBN: 978-0-88864-539-5

Alice Major writes: In 2007, my parents died within six weeks of each other. I had been looking after them for several years, through my father’s Alzheimer and my mother’s cancer, but their deaths were sudden, breath-takingly sudden.

I followed my mother’s body all the way to crematorium. The men there were kind and warned me that when they opened a particular door, I would see “the retorts.” Even in the immediacy of grief, I registered the unexpectedness of the word — a word that came from the alchemist’s workshop, originally for the glass beaker with its long spout used to divert gas and allow it to condense back into purified liquid. Later, the word was picked up by the Industrial Revolution for a particular kind of furnace used in steel-making. It had come a long way from its Latin root, meaning to curve back, to reply.

In the sudden silence of my life, I wrote most of this collection. I started by looking up the history of cremation, surprised to realize how recent a technology it is. The first furnace for disposing of dead bodies was exhibited in 1873, at the Vienna Exposition. Of course the funeral pyre is far older, but the modern version was a response to what the nineteenth century was realizing to be a problem — the crowded graveyards of newly spreading cities.

That started me thinking of all the technologies that shaped my mother’s life and how new they were to her. The “talkies” — the musicals of the 1930s that she loved — had been invented less than 10 years earlier. They were newer to her than the internet is to a teenager today.

And then I remembered a little incident from my father’s final years. I was in a coffee shop with him while he watched a toddler being bounced on its father’s lap. Dad was smiling and making the peek-a-boo faces that we make with little ones, and it suddenly struck me that — by the time this little boy lived to be in his eighties — his life and my father’s together would bracket more than a century and a half. The immediacy of the past washed over me. What we think is long gone is the merest handclasp away. My parents’ lives were directly shaped by the late 1800s, and mine is shaped by theirs. So I started to tell the story of my mother’s life through the inventions — both technical and social — of the Industrial Age.

This book is about how one thing turns into another. During the quiet winter, I was also reading Richard Dawkins’ book, The Ancestors Tale. Once again, the incredible connectedness of the deep past washed over me, all the tiny, tiny steps that created the variety of life on this planet. I found myself writing the linked sonnets of Time is how. It’s not so much a crown of sonnets — that old form where the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next until you get back to the first line again. It’s more a tiara. Lines/phrases from the first sonnet become the title of the following poems, and the final sonnet is made up of pieces from the first 13. It seemed to echo the way that DNA gets swapped around. A tiara doesn’t get back to where it started, but its curve is linked all the way.

The final set of poems about my parents’ marriage takes its titles from the processes that alchemists used to try and create the philosophers’ stone, that marvelous transformative goal that was never quite achieved. Yet the effort led to so much.

The muses were the daughters of memory. Grief makes memory overwhelming, even the smallest recollection is so sharp a shard. Yet it is through those memories we recover.

Experience a poem

Vienna Exposition, 1873

Time is how



… Major’s collection remains a lyrical and moving tribute to the power of our stories and memories, which shape us even as we imagine we are shaping them.

– British Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 24.1

… Memory’s Daughter, Major’s most recent collection, is a poetic “grand slam.”  This work, while focused on the death and life of Major’s parents, touches on mythology, social history, biology and alchemy along the way; it even comes with footnotes. Major has a way with the lyric form and uses image like no other. Often an image established in one poem is echoed in another. For example, a description of the Zoetrope (an early form of moving picture) in which action is “sliced so thin it freezes/into a single frame,” is paralleled in a later poem by the CT scanner and its “slices carved by radiation.”

In Memory’s Daughter, Major chronicles her parents’  lives, the changes in history they witnessed and the existential/mythical changes all of us experience during a lifetime. Like a life, this book is hard to sum up in only a few words, but it is a book that’s easy to read (and re-read). A poetic tour de force, Memory’s Daughter is, in every sense, a stunning poetic achievement.

-Ronnie Brown, Canadian Bookseller

“This book needs several readings to glean all that it contains. Each time you read a passage, you discover something new. That is the beauty of good poetry. It brings forth elegance, excitement and wisdom. It brings forth memory, and by doing so, creates a new one.”

– Mary Barnes, Prairie Fire

“Tender, wise, beautifully cadenced work which embraces the reader on every page … Her authoritative proficiency comes from a deep understanding of the complexities of aesthetic risks, and the elegance of those risks are so lightly manifested, so luminous, as to  make the world newly visible.”

– Don Domanski

“Ready your Kleenex. Edmonton’s former poet laureate, Alice Major, delivers tears in torrents in her homage to her parents and ill [niece]. Avoiding over-sentimentality, Major relies on history, brutal facts, Greek myth and biblical metaphors in a perfect homage. Cancer, Alzheimer’s, a spinal illness and looming death drive these poems, and Major captures our struggle to deal with such horrible normality with lines like these sung to her ailing father:

“Sleep, sleep, sleep, I hum
and like a drumming engine far below,
I hear the prayer, don’t wake.

– Saint John Telegraph-Journal

“The fourth suite, “Time is How,” is a remarkable linguistic tour de force radiant in self-referential language, exploring signifying limits and polysemous freedoms. The fifth section depicts a ten-year old girl with muscular dystrophy metamorphosing in Ovidian fashion into tree, map, melody, transforming fear into courage. The final suite articulates a perfect marriage between poetry and alchemy as “We watch the silver of the moon release you” to memory’s daughter.”

Kurt Jirgens, Canadian Literature

Elegiac and tender without sentimentality, Major’s poems pay homage to her parents, and especially her father, as he dwindled into dementia and eventually death. Although personal, the pieces in Memory’s Daughter are made richer by their infusion of myths such as that of Eve & Penelope, as well as through their delving into the early technologies of clocks, ships, gas lights and iron works. Embracing scientific diction, forms like the glosa and the adapted ghazal, refusing to shirk the difficult in either emotion or craft, Major’s collection is a consistently strong distilling of the world into poetry’s invaluable metals. A remarkable book in its poetic craftsmanship, Memory’s Daughter rewards the reader anew with each reading. Major’s moving poetic exploration of family and memory on both emotional and lyrical levels reveal a mature poet taking her craft to a new level into various poetic forms and structures and bringing everything together with an apparent ease that comes only from the most skilful of poets.

Jury comments, 2011 Stephan G. Stephansson Award.

Memory’s Daughter, by Alice Major, moves beyond the harrowing experience of infirm parents and final illnesses to a celebration of two remarkable people. Wielding meticulous research and a keen sense of place, Alice Major recreates the industrial world of Clydeside, the wartime Glasgow of her parents’ heritage. With glosas, ballads, sonnets and lullabies, she tells of clocks and photographs, love and politics, of birds and butterflies, factories and alchemy. Memory’s Daughter contains some of the finest formal poetry of the past decade, but handled gently, unobtrusively, helping pure memory to glow just as a gas mantle’s structure helps the old-fashioned gaslight illuminate a cobbled street.

Jury comments, 2011 Pat Lowther Award

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