1843 ‘Bold lines and vivid imagery’

Cactus Gardens
By Evelyn Lau

Vancouver, BC: Anvil Press, 2022
$18 / 9781772141948

Reviewed by Joe Enns


Cactus Gardens, Evelyn Lau’s ninth poetry collection, drifts among seasons of lost relationships, green-grey geographies, and the eerie effects of the COVID-19 pandemic as though “beyond time, suspended / in transit, outcomes unclear.” The collection evokes vivid imagery and a sombre mood. A passage like: “You lay in bed, in a half-life. It was June / and still rainforest green, damp washrag grey. / The depression surged in and out, like a tide,” for example, demonstrates Lau’s ability to efficiently weave together inner and outer landscapes with the gravity of time.  

While the tone can come across as lonely and dark, Lau pushes towards a silver lining (“cactus and orchid straining toward the light”). Brightness pushes in slowly. From “blackened apples” that “litter the lawn,” she takes us to the way light “creeps from the bottom of the windows.” With each poem, the reader absorbs the impression of a dulled existence and the absence of loved ones while “veins of light spasm in blue water. / You climb out, follow your wet footprints back.” We follow Lau’s wet footprints back through the seasons of her life.

Lau explores many themes throughout the collection, but one theme I found especially interesting was the idea of surfaces and the ephemerality of home (“when su casa / was mi casa, I lived in glamour. A sweep of glass / between the frantic city and me. I meandered / from room to room, stroking all the surfaces — / silver ponds of stainless steel”). The image of the city as a collection of surfaces is strong, and through it, Lau shows the relevance to our current era: “Trump Tower a block of glass obscuring the view / We’re losing it all.” And although many of us don’t want to relive COVID-19 times, we can’t help but resonate with the images (“on good days you find multiple surfaces / to sanitize, re-arrange your stockpile of clothes and shoes— / who knew? you were just preparing for the pandemic— / stand in line at the grocery store, the drugstore”). By the end, I got the impression of each poem as its own surface, each with its own glint, carefully arranged, but also with a sense of being obscured by loss and isolation. 

Cactus Gardens is heavy with the pain of absence and a search for belonging (“soon it’ll be gone, Shirley says, gesturing at / the sweep of low- and mid-rises, the city as we know it”). From the emptiness of living alone (“I follow your ghost from room to room”) to the eeriness of a city in lockdown (“ghost buses sailed through grimed streets, / the homeless feasting from overflowing bins, / huddled gloved and garbage bag-gowned in doorways”), Lau interrogates how temporary even our closest relationships can be (“the face of the person in front of you / erased itself”). Lau’s distanced voice and mournful tone matches this impression of missing people and empty spaces.  

During the pandemic I heard many writers complain of an inability to write, a struggle for inspiration. Lau explores this lull (“everyone’s in a funk, waiting for words. / We sit and stare at screens, sharpen pencils”) and she questions the significance of idle words such as street names (“a nonsense alphabet”) and small talk (“what’s the bankable worth of these words?”). But instead, like the silver lining, Lau evokes meaning from the underlying imagery of life (“gold hairs on your arms, green flare / of your eyes. I’ve studied your face, / its alphabet of expressions”) and the spaces we inhabit (“under the sun-shade slanted over the patio— / count my riches, ignore all loss”). Her dichotomies create an interesting tension between finding the inspiration to write and recognizing the elements of language that make up every detail of our life.

As with Lau’s previous poetry collections (like Treble and Living Under Plastic), most of the poems are free verse, some arranged in couplets or quatrains. The final piece, “Paradise” (dedicated to W.P. Kinsella), is a long poem split into numbered stanzas—like chapters that share a narrative of a lost relationship. Lau’s strengths are in her bold lines and vivid imagery that draw out deeper questions. 

Cactus Gardens provokes impressions from the reader that can act as both a calendar and a map. Lau connects the passage of time to relationships, the body, food, and landscape (“this bluebell sky, split by a contrail / of smoke; these common gardens / so many shades of green, citrus and vegetal”). From “Summer Solstice” to “Paradise,” Lau emulates the entertainer of her opening poem (“Graham”) “steering his guests from sun to shade / to sun again under changing skies” while interrogating her inner landscape struggling through loss (“you smash your head / against the metal divider, again, again. / Gold and silver fireworks bloom”). Like Lau’s wet footprints across the page, each image leaves the reader in a transitional space, cracked, but with a sparkle and bloom.


Joe Enns is a Canadian writer, painter, and fisheries biologist on Vancouver Island. His writing has appeared in The Dalhousie Review, FreeFall, The Fiddlehead, GUSTS, Portal Magazine, and forthcoming in The Malahat Review. His fiction was shortlisted in FreeFall’s 2020 Prose and Poetry Contest. Joe has a BA in Creative Writing and a BSc in Ecological Restoration.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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