Amanda Earl: Excerpts from 'Saint Ursula’s Commonplace Book'

Amanda Earl : photo credit: Charles Earl
Amanda Earl : photo credit: Charles Earl

There is a fearlessness I’ve always admired about the work of Ottawa poet, editor and publisher Amanda Earl, unafraid to follow her curiosity into unusual corners, whether exploring the sexuality and textures of 1920’s Montparnasse in her first trade collection, Kiki (Chaudiere Books, 2014), to “Saint Ursula’s Commonplace Book.” As she writes to describe her current work-in-progress:

Ursula lived in the fourth or fifth century. Variations on her story exist. In one version, she is travelling by ship with eleven thousand virgins to meet her groom, a Pagan. The ship is attacked and the women, including Ursula, are beheaded. In another version, an arrow pierces her heart.

A church was built over the tomb where Ursula was buried. The arrow which pierced her is kept there. Young girls pray to Ursula for protection and miracles. She is their patron saint.

Once upon a time I encountered a homeless woman who seemed to be spouting prophecy. I didn’t ask her name at the time but later something gave me the name Ursula. When I looked up this name I discovered the saint and her story. I wrote a long poem about these two women (Ursula, AngelHousePress, 2008). Saint Ursula’s Commonplace Book is a continuation.

The National Homelessness Initiative estimates that 150,0001 Canadians (or approximately one out of every 200 people) were experiencing or have experienced absolute homelessness over the past year. “Experiencing Homelessness, Second Report Card on Homelessness in Ottawa (Jan-Dec 2005)”

Over the past decade, her incredibly playful studies in form, subject and voice have grown in scope and scale, from a series of chapbook-length to book-length projects, all the while managing to include a healthy exploration of sexuality at every opportunity. She relishes the exploration, it would seem, both of structure and libido. As her chapbook Sex First & Then A Sandwich (above/ground press, 2012) explored love and the Canadian ghazal, other projects have played with increasingly interesting experiments into visual and concrete poetry, such as her recent chapbook Of The Body (Puddles of Sky Press, 2012). Her chapbook WELCOME TO EARTH, poems for alien(s) (BookThug, 2008) explored a lively exploration of poems as a series of introductions to humanity for alien life, and, as Kane X. Faucher wrote in his review, contained “pulsating energy flickering in a remote pocket of the universe. From here, Earl twists and imbricates themes of language and light into a kind of golden poetic braid. Earl finesses each line so that it is less broken than tapered and frayed. From light and the ocular delights, Earl moves along her corporeal register into the domain of liquidity, resolving these themes in darkness and silence.”

One could say that the bulk of her poetry over the past decade, through various experiments in form, voice and rhythm, has focused specifically on exploring various shades (and even the contradictions) of character, from her first trade collection, Kiki, the work-in-progress “All the Catharines,” or the Eleanor of Aquitaine influenced chapbook Eleanor (above/ground press, 2007), which poet and critic Sina Queyras praised in a review on her Lemonhound:

The fragments of this narrative concern Eleanor of Aquitaine, referenced in the title and in the epigram at the beginning: “They left me word, these men and their ties, but they did not level me.” After years of resisting this impulse in poetry now I can’t get enough of it. But not all fragmented poetry works, or is satisfying. What is it about one text that seems to be at a level of interrupting itself that shakes the very idea of its being on a page, but holds together enough to offer a willing reader a way in and through? From the beginning of this text I am quite taken: “all night on a curb is this where you expect to find me/music and tin cans rattle.” There is something musical here. Something that, like Jeanette Armstrong’s “Winds,” operates like wind chimes, notes hitting and resounding. Earl’s text jousts images and expectations, mundane glasses emptying, histories, feuds, mostly self-referential, domestic images, but still enough surprise here to keep me grasping through. Visually the text reminds me not of Armstrong, but of Rachel Zolf’s earlier work, as well as parts of Zong! the brilliant new book from M. Nourbese Philip.

Other examples of Earl’s exploration of character include the chapbooks me, Medusa (The Red Ceilings Press, 2012) and The Sad Phoenician’s Other Woman (above/ground press, 2008), which played off Robert Kroetsch’s original, The Sad Phoenician (Coach House Press, 1979). In her essay on composing the poem, “Notes on The Sad Phoenician’s Other Woman: Experiencing Robert Kroetsch’s Poetry In A Fever,” she wrote:

I love his wit, his double entendres, his easygoing style. I felt, in part, like I was home, like I’d found an influence. Before Kroetsch I’d also been galvanized by the writing of Lisa Robertson and Dennis Cooley in much the same way and had to explore such things as the long line and the sentence based on their work.


Excerpts from Saint Ursula’s Commonplace Book


snow.   tree.     knots. steam.
union. wisp.    brown.             breath.
sea. chalice.     port.   clock.
number. Leviticus. cataract. cure.




if there
is any hope,
if there is
any hope
at all,

must be taken.
take care.
never waiver.
let the sun
heat your bones.
arise before sunlight.
I must roam.

to the voice.
I must listen.


azure.   sphinx.             levee.   bluff.
earth.   toggle. urn.      copse.
roll.      silver.   heard. swing.
feral.    specter. finite. host.


the dawn
breaks, they say,
it breaks. I have a quest:
luminosity. I search for
light. the dark sky opens,
inside. a jewel, the sun.
its fire flames across the land. my home.
a burnished, splendid horizon.
out of doors. I am wary Must never
let myself be locked in, shut in again.


fear. space. cursive. might.
altar. order. gorge. quartz.
cave. escape. wish. brood.
crow. novena. bulb. hope.



the sky protects
when it is blue
is dangerous
when violet
a childhood
thought. the
pigeons circle
above, their
prayers in
coos. there is no
order, no control.
I accompany
a feather floating
on the river,
a stone in my hand.