I Dreamed I Was an Afterthought

By Allie Duff
Guernica Editions
May 2024 | $20.00

Reviewed by Mary Germaine

There’s a certain poetry to starting your period while you’re walking the dog and a thunderstorm suddenly hits. Epic menstruation is not usually what you expect from a slim blue volume of poetry, but Allie Duff’s debut collection is all about the sometimes painful, sometimes gleeful ways a woman can break from expectations.

The pressures are not unfamiliar: be a good daughter, act like an emotionally stable adult, go to mass, call your grandma. Pay rent. But some of the assumptions are slightly more specific, and harder to rebel against: if you’re from Newfoundland, then at some point, you gotta move away. If your mother gets breast cancer young, then doctors expect you to get checked. They’re not wrong. These poems show there’s more than one way to do it right, and it’s okay to be weird, if it’s weird to decide that your stray hair is dancing to the techno beeps of the MRI machine. 

The poems themselves are not unconventional. Craft-wise, they are thoughts with line-breaks, polished for an audience. Most of these pieces hinge on simile (“[l]ike a ski slope in summer, I am green and out of order”) and their energy comes from the juxtaposition of images, like the aforementioned thunderstorm plus period blood, or the cliffs of The Narrows and the neurons of the human brain. This writing style gives the overall impression of honesty. With little evidence of artifice, things come together just as randomly and funnily enough as they do in real life. 

Every Newfoundland poet writes about the weather, and Allie Duff is no exception. Almost all the poems in this book make a comment about atmospheric conditions. (I counted them: out of fifty-eight poems, forty-two mention the weather, if you include “tourist season” as part of our climate, which I do.) Townies will recognize many of the locations, and they are not all as cute as the “shear-holders” at the “Annual General Meeting of the Tors Cove Sheep.” “Elizabeth Avenue Ghost” is an elegy for a friend whose suicide “was a protest/against being gutted by the dull knife/that cuts us off from the place/we were promised in our early days.” 

What is that younger place? It’s unclear. In poems like “Re(wild) Children” and “Caught,” the adult-free zones are characterized by “the squish of living earth” and “mushroom puffs,” which, honestly, don’t sound that different from the “grass exploding through rotten wood” the grown-up speaker observes at an ambivalent Canada Day celebration. In any case, no one is ever completely innocent. Trespassing is the only way to get to the special spot, whether it’s a backyard, garden, bridge, or the forbiddingly cold ocean, and the adventures therein are not without anxiety. Even as a kid, she has the “panic-ridden eyes of a twitching/rabbit.”

That fear may be premonitory—adulthood holds a hundred reasons to worry each day. In the face of sickness, death, climate apocalypse, the rent due, and the rent due again, being an afterthought doesn’t sound like a total nightmare. But in trying not to be afraid, these poems are pretty much naked, with all the nervy bits and goofy shapes exposed to the elements. Is there anything worse than taking off your clothes and nobody even notices? How humiliating. Luckily, I Dreamed I Was an Afterthought insists we see “some other kind of woman” take centre stage in her own weird way.

I Dreamed I Was An Afterthought by Allie Duff

Mary Germaine is a PhD student at the University of New Brunswick living in St. John’s. Her book is Congratulations, Rhododendrons(House of Anansi Press).