It isn't often that poetry keeps me reading to find out what happens next but that was the case with Playing into Silence, Tina Biello's third, full-length collection of poetry. Several of the poems tell the story of Pam, a young lesbian growing up in small town Alberta, Canada in the 50s and 60s.
"No one told me to love / this way," the narrator says in the first poem of the collection: "What No One Told Me." Many of us can relate to the experience of coming of age with no celebration as described in the poem and yet there's a shape shifting magic with a sister who "learned to talk crow, / to caw when danger arrived."
We learn in "Grade 9 Band" that Pam is a saxophone player. In "Going to the Library, 1963," Pam, writing in the first person, says she wants to read "about women on an island far away," perhaps Sappho's island of Lesbos, as she says she's heard "only women live there." The last time she asked for a book about women, they gave her "Little Women to read."
Many of the poems are in the first person while in others such as "Heisler," a narrator describes the town where the poems are set. In "1965," readers learn that "Pamela at sixteen, drives a '55 Rambler in reverse / at dusk." That's so the odometer "rolls backward, doesn't track / the two extra miles to / Lana's house." She wants to kiss her girlfriend goodnight. In the first stanza of the poem, we learn that Pam is sent to an asylum when she's caught by her parents kissing a girl. She plays her saxophone until "the charge nurse takes her saxophone away, she keeps on playing / into the silence, where the notes / are hers and hers alone."
The conversational aspect and first person voice of many of the poems will make those readers who are fearful of or resistant to poetry into fans. Pam continues the story of her time in the asylum in a poem, entitled "Ponoka" for a small town in Alberta. She begins in her voice as if she knows we're waiting to hear what happens next.
In Part Two, "House of Stone," poems are in the voice of a narrator who has a secret relationship with a woman who also has a male lover. This could be Pam or written as composites of other people, as fiction writers do, to continue the stories of secrets that lesbians often have to keep. Birds continue to make an appearance: ravens in "Standing in the Cedar Grove" and a magpie in "Look."
In "One More Time," Pam talks to a fellow musician in the "cello section" agreeing that she has always known she was a lesbian "especially when I found Lana, the tall blond with the farm and / horses just outside of town."
The section takes its title from "Cortona, Summer Heat" where there is a house of stone in which "we have told our story. / The one where a woman loves a woman."
In Part Three, "A Good Place," memories are shared, back in the area of "Township Road 424." We can assume that Pam has been able to go back home despite the hardships of her early life, to see her sister Connie who, in an earlier poem, "After Dinner Dance," plays trumpet.
Now Pam and lesbians like her may be the older women we see in a Pride Parade, rainbow colors in their hair, finally able to celebrate a coming of age in an exuberant environment of love and acceptance.
Tina Biello studied theater at the University of British Columbia and is an actor and now a poet and playwright. Her first full-length book of poetry, In the Bone Cracks of the Walls, was published by Leaf Press in 2014. Her second full-length book of poems, A Housecoat Remains, was published by Guernica Editions in 2015. Biello is is the Poet Laureate of Nanaimo, B.C. from 2017 to 2020 and lives on Vancouver Island, B.C.
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