A Hat to Stop a Train


88 pages
ISBN 0-919897-89-4
DDC C811'.6





Reviewed by Beryl Baigent

Beryl Baigent is a poet; her published collections include Absorbing the
Dark, Hiraeth: In Search of Celtic Origins, Triptych: Virgins, Victims,
Votives, and Mystic Animals.


Dedicated to the memory of the poet’s mother, A Hat to Stop a Train is
more than a collection of family memories. Stewart dredges up “the
bones of the ancestors” to demonstrate how they “cast our lot” and
how the “hundred bony bones in [her] hand” wield the pen to keep the
family alive.

Part 1, “Troubles,” begins with the self-conscious revelations of
the child/narrator whose “fat baby legs help [her] slide along the
edge of the next paragraph.” The “Troubles” are both personal and
national: the death, the “[s]igns of her,” disposal of her personal
items, juxtaposed with an Ulster bomb explosion, fighting at funerals in
Belfast, and a hunger strike at the Maze prison.

Part 2, “Letters,” opens with an explanation that the “thin blue
airmails” from family in Ireland were dubbed the “Blues.”
Stewart’s letters reveal that she was bound tightly to her mother as
she wound “those elastic bandages around her legs.” The poet finds
herself “[p]utting down words like planting bulbs … or cutting out
scones on a floured board … trying to get closer to her because her
ashes are away in Ireland.”

In Part 3, “Prayers,” Celtic prayers are addressed to all, as
God’s handiwork is seen in everything, even in the one “Gone to
Ghost” who reminds her daughter to meet her once a year on her
birthday and prepares her with “I’ll appear when you’re ready.”
Some prayers echo old Irish morality: “Be tidy and clean and quiet and
good.” Others are evoked by sleeping under the “women of the Bible
quilt.” Still others read more like pagan spells: “Let me disappear
in Ireland, into the Troubles … into all that craic.”

In the final section, “Callings,” Stewart hears her mother’s
voice in “Her Calling.” Whether one interprets “calling” as the
“singsong lilt” of her physical voice or as the vocation, Stewart
longs to experience her presence.

One can feel the poet working through her grief in this volume.



Stewart, Sheila., “A Hat to Stop a Train,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 20, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/14709.