Poems for a Phantom Lover

By (author): Jennifer Dickson

Starting with the reflecting pool beneath the Unicorn Amphitheatre on Isola Bella, Poems for a Phantom Lover pairs a selection of short poems with photographs culled from decades’ worth of research into the structure and symbolism of historic gardens, a study that has led Jennifer Dickson to question conventional assumptions about the place of gender identity and sexual role-play in the vivisection of an earthly paradise.

In the collection, sunlight caresses the timeworn fountains, pagodas and loggias populated by gods and idols, while ill winds rasp among the altars and monuments whose stones are steeped in blood. These are gardens of desire, of longing and betrayal, where torment festers under the flagstones and `the wounds of love / are suppurating stone.’


Jennifer Dickson

Jennifer Dickson had already established an international reputation as an artist before emigrating to Canada in 1969. Born in the Republic of South Africa in 1936, she studied at Goldsmiths’ College School of Art (University of London, England) and was an associate of the prestigious graphic workshop Atelier 17 in Paris.

Her early work–The Secret Garden (1976) and Three Mirrors to Narcissus (1979)–challenged assumptions about gender and sexual roles in Western society. During the 1980s and 1990s she travelled extensively in England, France and Italy, focusing on the structure and symbolism of historic gardens. Beauty and its desecration became obsessions, culminating in The Last Silence–Pavane for a Dying World (1993-1997), part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada.

In 1976, Dickson was elected a Royal Academician (RA) by the Royal Academy of Arts, in London, England, the only Canadian in the 200-year history of this prestigious institution to have been so honoured. She is, in addition, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers (London, England). She was named to the Order of Canada (CM) in 1995. She lives in Ottawa.


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Excerpts & Samples ×

To Dionysus

Where once sweet winds of reason blew
the race was for the sons of man,
not gods; now lizards sun.
The echoes of the triumph fade
into mosaics in the tepidarium.
And all that’s left of emperors–a hand,
a foot for pillaging.

For how could savages be moved
by looking on forbidden joys,
O young Dionysus?
Now beauty pines alone, and in these sunlit halls
the wounds of love
are suppurating stone.

The Capitoline Museum, Rome. September, 1989.

The Rape of Cythera

Beloved Wife:
I will create for you a garden,
testament of my love.

In it the roses will always be in bloom.
The perfumed air will be fanned
by the outspread tails of peacocks.

Your laughter will alternate with sighs of delight.

Carlo Borromeo, 1630.

Beloved Husband:
I cannot find you in my garden.

I cannot see you for the throng of pilgrims
bearing votive offerings to the Unicorn:

cigarette butts and chewing gum,
the plastic wrapping of illicit picnics,
the paper on which they blew their noses.

The gardeners torment my peacocks
until they wail like banshees.
One million pilgrims, two million feet
pounding the roots of my camphor tree.
How can I bear the pain?

Round and round the pilgrims gyrate in my garden:
fourteen minutes to snap,
to trample, pluck and poke.
The tour guide waits at the vaporetto.

Beloved Husband:
if you love me, build me a garden.
Build for me a garden in a fortress,
a fortress which has no gate.

Isabella d’Adda dei Borromeo, 1989.

Reader Reviews



128 Pages
8.75in * 5.55in * .36in


August 15, 2023


Porcupine’s Quill



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