The Wind Has Robbed the Legs Off a Madwoman

By Agnes Walsh
Breakwater Books
April 2 2024 | $19.95

Reviewed by Andreae Callanan

Agnes Walsh’s fourth poetry collection is a study in both-ness and in-between-ness, an affirmation that more than one thing can be true at any given moment. “And why does spring look like autumn?” one poem asks. In another poem, the question is “How can so much silence be so loud?” Light and darkness, day and night dance and overlap: a thicket of tuckamore gives us “shadows that waver between light and dark.” A speaker drives “into the night of day.” In a foggy season, “the day dies almost as soon as it begins.” 

Walsh has always been a poet of place. This collection moves the reader back and forth between “town” (St. John’s) and a house on Newfoundland’s Cape Shore; many of the poems unfold in the liminal highway space between these two points. Just as the poems and their speaker move between sites, so too does Walsh allow herself to drift—just a little—between tongues, loosing Newfoundland vernacular into the air through songs heard, conversations remembered, and attempts at connection.

Familiar language is posited as an antidote to anxiety. At a medical appointment, Walsh’s speaker tries to chat with her doctor about familial words for pain, and about family origins, but is rebuffed: 

“I suppose I wanted to be distracted from the worry, 
I wanted to be able to make small talk with words
that take me back to years and years ago,

to hang on to a bit of where I’m from,
instead of just hanging on.”

The “worry” is “a definite small invasion” that has shown up in a mammogram, shifting the speaker’s sense of herself in the world, telling her “to carry on, slow down, / look up, and just breathe.” The collection isn’t about illness exactly, but illness appears nonetheless, inserting itself almost imperceptibly a quarter of the way through the book. It is acknowledged first with consternation and grief (“A stiff upper lip was never part of our tribe, / so you let it tremble”), then with resolve (“A shock but not a surprise; / if you get to be old enough / your chances are good.”), then, in the aftermath, with sly humour (“On my way out I said with a wink, / So they got all of that “lumpeen,” did they?”). 

These poems are contemplative, almost meditative, often a little dream-like. Walsh recounts changes in the weather with the attentiveness of someone for whom these minutiae mean the world, and she describes animals, plants, and the built environment with care and precision. Underneath it all is a pulse of romantic entanglement, the folly of “falling in love at my age.” The seasons are always turning; with Walsh, we are always on the cusp of something, standing in two places at once, looking forward and back at the same time. The effect is a wondrous defamiliarization. Walsh leads her reader into a blissful—and occasionally wry—surrender to the order of things, guiding us to tune our senses to our surroundings, whatever those surroundings might be.

Andreae Callanan is the author of Crown (Anstruther Press, 2019), and The Debt (Biblioasis, 2021). She is a past poetry editor for Riddle Fence, and the current poetry editor for Janus Unbound: Journal of Critical Studies. She lives in St. John’s.