Review Article by Patrick Connors
Bernadette Gabay Dyer is a Toronto novelist, artist, storyteller, poet and short story writer. She is a member of the Writer's Union of Canada and worked in the Toronto Public Library system for 47 years. Stone Woman is her first full collection of poetry.
Early in the book is “For the One I Love”, a short but provocative poem which concludes with the following lines: “As I, in shivers/ Drown again and again/In liquid ice,/As I fall/ Into your flames.” There is a certain breathless allure to these words. But, it is not sensuality merely for the sake of being sensual. There is a maturity here, a depth, of an experience which can only be shared through true intimacy. In any case, this is not what one might expect from a retired librarian!
“When I write,” Dyer told me, "I am not thinking only from the point of view of a woman. Quite often, it is as though a disembodied voice, male or female speaks through me, and that is perhaps why some of my poems often are presented from entirely different points of view.”
Dyer has established relationships with many noteworthy writers and poets through her life and careers, both as a librarian and through her writing practice. One of the people she has rubbed shoulders with is George Elliott Clarke, the former Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Dyer dedicated the book in part to Clarke, and he was eager to lavish praise on her.
“Bernadette Gabay Dyer writes tales brimming over with magic and poems that sing with feeling,” Clarke proclaimed. “I am honoured that she thanks me for encouraging her art, but her response has always been courteous wonder and committed production. Thus, out of the lava of her ink, these stone poems arrive—cool to the eye, but searing to the brain.”
“I first encountered George Elliott Clarke after having submitted a poem to an Ottawa magazine called “Possibilities”,” Dyer recounted. “George was then part of their team, and he was kind enough to contact me by snail mail and praise my work. I was at that time unaware that he was a literary giant. Our correspondence has lasted more than 25 years, as we continue to share our work.”
Her piece “The Domino Players” is a great snapshot of a scene from her native Jamaica. A great poem is often a simple telling of a specific moment in a manner which makes it special. “... the slaps, the whipping down/Of “hard cards,” the dominoes,/Whose terrible smacks and powerful whacks go/Against the heart, the breast of my memories,/And the players whose raucous shouts obliterate/The surrounding wonder.”
“I never approach my poetry as being a learning tool for others. I am a Story Teller,” Dyer said in capital letters, “and most of my poetry tells tales from different angles as well as unexpected revelations, since even the most disconcerting angle concerning the shouts and slapping down of dominos, by players being able to drown the impact of a landscape’s significance.”
An unexpected revelation here is the line, “Against the heart, the breast of my memories,”. There is something so primal about memory and how it impacts our experience for an entire lifetime, and she depicts that in such a meaningful and memorable way. As someone who has never been to Jamaica, I feel like I learned something about her native land through this poem.
In "Library Corners" we see some of the wonderful things about libraries, how they can be a microcosm of the community around them, but also how they can become a source for personal empowerment, why it would be awful for them to be subjected to cutbacks.. “Misunderstandings makes fools of us all,For mother/tongues no longer prove reliable/In listening to humanities secret wisdom/Of rich solutions,/Piety is imperative in these walls/Where poised in self-imposed isolation/A black boy is reading.”
“Working in a library is a perfect setting for those of us who love all things literary,” commented Dyer. “That environment is also the perfect place to get to know a community and their needs. It was a wonderful opportunity to see beyond all that is in plain sight.
“With my own eyes, and ears I had experienced a day of turmoil, and while wandering between library shelves, I happened upon a black boy quietly reading in a corner. The memory of which still brings chills since it broke the stereotype, and confirmed all that I had hoped for as a black woman.”
Dyer is a fine artist, with an unbridled musicality to her work which is incredibly engaging. She is just being herself, not trying to impress anybody, and that is the most impressive feature of her work.
I wondered how this book would have been different if it had come out 20 years ago?
“In life, it seems that timing is everything,” Dyer conceded. “Twenty years ago, I might not have had the maturity, empathy and observation skills I have now acquired.”
Dyer has another book project upcoming with Mosaic Press. This is an organization with an international reputation, and you can order their books online through your favourite bookseller, or directly from the publisher’s website: https://mosaicpress.ca/search?q=Stone+Woman
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I agree with Bernadette that Toronto Public library is a wonderful place for a poet/writer to work. I worked for TPL for 6 1/2 years, at the Main St. Branch and then the Gerrard/Ashdale Branch. When I moved to rural Ontario to live closer to nature, the TPL work experience gave me the cred to become first the Marmora head librarian and then the Stirling head librarian for a decade. It was more fun and far easier work being a low paid desk clerk for TPL than being a village library CEO.