Quoted: Odes & Laments

Inspired by Pablo Neruda’s Elemental Odes, Fiona Tinwei Lam’s poetry collection Odes & Laments (Caitlin Press) is a visual play with text and typography that uses humour, narrative, and lyricism to contemplate everyday existence. Below Fiona tells us about the Neruda quote that opens her collection and how poetry is “a way to acknowledge what is at risk and what has been lost, to stand up against the enormous tide of greed, violence and inhumanity threatening to inundate the planet.”


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I chose this eloquent quote by Pablo Neruda to open my new collection, Odes & Laments, because of how it links poetry with soil, water, and bread—the necessaries of life. Across cultures, borders, and time, good poems have provided humankind with sustenance for the spirit and the heart. Neruda also alludes to the natural world, an essential thread that runs through the book. He advocates for poetry that is accessible, democratic and unpretentious, and that acknowledges readers’ thirst and hunger for meaning, wonder, delight, and solace. My aim with Odes & Laments is the same.Neruda’s odes to ordinary things have inspired me ever since I was introduced to his wonderful “Ode to My Socks” many years ago. Originating in the Greek word aeidein meaning to sing or chant, the ode is defined by the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics as “the most formal, ceremonious and complexly organized form of lyric poetry, usually of considerable length.” In Ancient Greece, odes were written in an elevated style, and performed publicly for state occasions, such as the birthdays and funerals of rulers, or the dedication of monuments. In contrast, Neruda’s odes are simple, clear, informal—and magical. They retain the song-like nature of the ode, but celebrate humble objects, honouring the place, role, and significance of things we so often take for granted, making the ordinary extraordinary through the alchemy of poetry. His odes inspired me to rediscover wonder in the quotidian through writing my own poems about ordinary things, such as pencils, chopsticks, plates, feet, peaches, potatoes, soap, starfish, even a crow named Canuck—poems of celebration to counterbalance my poems of despair about habitat loss, global warming, plastic pollution, and cancer.   As political, social, and environmental crises have become more acute over recent years, the celebration of beauty in the world around us has become even more essential. What we take for granted may one day vanish. Writing poetry is not merely fiddling while Rome burns: rather, it’s a way to acknowledge what is at risk and what has been lost, to stand up against the enormous tide of greed, violence and inhumanity threatening to inundate the planet. We poets have the power to recognize life and beauty, even if at times we feel powerless to prevent them from being destroyed. * * *
Fiona Tinwei Lam
is the author of Intimate Distances (finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Prize), Enter the Chrysanthemum, as well as Odes & Laments. She also authored the illustrated children’s book, The Rainbow Rocket. She teaches at Simon Fraser University (Continuing Studies).* * *Thanks to Fiona for sharing the story behind the epigraph that leads to Odes & Laments and to Monica at Caitlin Press for making the connection! Click here for more Quoted.