Rose Després


  1. Biography
  2. Why Should We Read and Study Després?
  3. Literature & Analysis
    1. “The tide defines . . .”
    2. “At The Star-port”
    3. Analysis of “The tide defines . . .” and “At The Star-port”
    4. “Primitive sonata”
    5. Analysis of “Primitive sonata”
  4. Questions and Considerations for Reflection
  5. Strategies for Teachers
  6. Further Reading
  7. Copyright


Born in Cocagne, NB in 1950, Rose Després is another of Acadie’s writers who expresses herself in multiple genres. Poet, musician, actor, teacher, and translator, she gained literary notice in 1982 with her first collection of poems, Fièvre de nos mains. Five collections followed, each displaying an arresting internal intensity that has been described as incendiary. Her work is indeed animated by elemental imagery, restless movement, and flight, her recurring symbols water and fire, and her recurring occasion that of release. Her subjects break out, soar, explode, and always push against the boundaries of the normal. The occasions in which we observe them are a combination of the quotidian and the fantastic, that combination not a mixing of opposites, and therefore absurd, but a statement about the instability of normalcy. Després, in other words, delights in troubling the normal and rendering it extraordinary. She makes poetry of the prosaic.

On most author pages we direct readers to the appropriate entry in The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia. Though a Rose Després entry is in production, it is not yet finalized. Please check the NBLE periodically for updates.

Why Should We Read and Study Després?

  • We read Rose Després, quite simply, to luxuriate in lush, resplendent imagery. Her imagery is so lush and bold (and often so unexpected and riotous) that it is restorative. Reading her refreshes the mind and spirit. Few New Brunswick poets have an image bank and metaphoric capacity as fertile and as fresh. Her images and flights startle and delight. Her poems are not always easy to comprehend on first reading, but, like John Thompson’s Ghazals, they become understandable if we trade rational for emotional and imaginative intelligence. Reading her, then, makes us aware of our “rational” defaults, mechanisms poorly equipped to appreciate modern art. Her poems, like Thompson’s Ghazals, should come with a sign that reads, “Do not be afraid!” If we suspend the need for instant and logical sense making, then we will appreciate what she has done. This advice, of course, applies to everything we encounter that is not immediately familiar, a consideration that explains why we read literature in the first place.
  • That said, English New Brunswickers should read Acadian authors such as Rose Després for insight into both the French and English sensibility. To read literature from another language is to encounter difference, but also to highlight one’s own difference. Our egos convince us that the way our language shapes reality is the norm. We are the standard bearers. Everything else is other. But only when we confront actual otherness or difference do we really understand who we are: the peculiarities of how we view the world, how we use language, and how that language defaults to particular metaphors, sign systems, and beliefs. An analogy that will make the point clear is found in the vast gulf in contemporary American politics between the Republican and Democratic ethos, both, in this case, occupying the same language system, but both almost indecipherable to the other. One is no more “right” than the other, though adherents of each think their political philosophy is the correct one. Each partisan’s inability to see difference in him/herself from experiencing difference in others means that the gulf between both groups is exaggerated – and cooperation stifled. Literature in translation mirrors that encounter. And so when we read Rose Després, Herménégilde Chiasson, and Ronald Després, we generally encounter imaginative worlds more resplendent than our own, which tells us a good deal about the Puritan roots of our Anglo-Saxon and Germanic identities. That peculiarity is not bad, nor does it stifle creativity (Protestantism has created much great literature), but it is different. Understanding that difference enables us to know others and to know ourselves more fully. Both are essential for maturity.

Literature & Analysis

“The tide defines . . .” 

       The tide defines mysteries and trance-like debris in its receding

       Pulsations, storm-filled hands, you resemble a foggy moon, your
waistline rooted in a watery world. You mystify children with your juggler’s
pirouettes and awaken a master’s jig, a feverish rain that fecundates
every countryside where dancing lightning adorns our solitary
gardens with bouquets of tenderness.

“At The Star-port”

I thought that in your absence we would walk around
in a mild January climate disguised in emotions of

Geographical recollections, the regions of my heart
reach as far as the excited passageways …
Children … Lingalan banter … waves in the first
person plural, my sense in prison and our
radioactive exchanges swell up between us
in illicit reflections.

Violet distortions.

You walk and I come running
You soliloquize and I babble
You ponder and I squander my dreams at the
market of illusions.

Analysis of  “The tide defines . . .” and “At The Star-port”

These two poems, each from Després’ first two collections, bring us immediately into her lush imaginative world. They throw us off balance and demand a kind of dissociative thinking that, as adults, we have been taught to discard. Better, we are told in school and society, to apply science and rationalism than imagination. And so, in the context of the first poem, we default to the tide defining a border, or a line on the beach, or a high water mark that can be measured. We want to hear that the tide carries species of various types, that, as a Fundy tide, it rises and falls 16.8 meters in a 24-hour cycle, 3 times a day, consolidating a catchment of water that is equivalent to 62,127 Niagara Falls. That makes sense (strangely enough) because it gives us benchmarks – because it defaults to our “applied” and utilitarian way of thinking. But we don’t know quite what to do with the information that the “tide defines mysteries and trance-like debris.” What does that mean? And what can we do with that? Mystery is not measurable, nor is debris usually thought of as “trance-like.”

If we are earnest in ruminating on our mystification, we will realize, suddenly, that we have been deprogrammed, and perhaps that, as children, we once had the capacity to understand metaphors and imaginative leaps into the unfamiliar. It is at that point that we will realize that tides are indeed “pulsations,” that they furiously grab, like “storm-filled hands,” and that they are indeterminate, more like “a foggy moon” than a straight line on the beach, the image of the moon having more than casual resonance when discussing tides. We may also realize that describing waves as “juggler’s / pirouettes” is not only unusual but also brilliant, the result of very careful observation. That the line is broken and wraps to the next, which in poetry is call “enjambment,” is also brilliant, simulating the crashing or falling of a wave. The wave, in a sense, really does juggle, keeping its white water at the top until it comes crashing down in an arc or pirouette that is akin to a dance in following a defined pattern. The pattern is key, for it is cyclic and generative, a flow that generates other flows. This is the march of life, the sea the source of all energy and living things, the secret of our world. It is the source of rain and fecundity (growth). Its internal fire indeed “adorns our solitary / gardens with bouquets of tenderness.” All life is born and stems from that pulsating ferocity.

Després’ metaphors, then, are very striking and unusual. But they are also extremely precise – and, when explained, completely understandable. The same can be said for the movement of her mind toward unconventional associations. Her work, and the work of writers who stand outside our language, requires a kind of attentiveness that most of us are reluctant to deploy. With that in mind, readers are invited to linger attentively over “At The Star-port.”

What will help is to know that Després travelled extensively as a young woman; that “Lingalan banter” refers to an actual Bantu (African) language that mixes indigenous and European usages, borrowing heavily from French; and that the poem’s speaker (likely the poet) seems to be lamenting a failed or secret relationship, one that was felt deeply but not acted upon. The poem opens from there.

“Primitive sonata”

       One road too many is enough to lead us astray.

       Bootdragging, bringing down the more-than-perfect ones with a
body of sculpted copper, your scent exotic as a plant hides your stovepipe

       Dawn awakens a hen-house symphony of leaves crackling naked
in last night’s wind as the wine still simmers in my veins. Love dreams
in my hot heart, the lordly staff of desire opens my thighs and my
mouths open to a deranged intermission barking out a depraved
sonata flaring my nostrils to a spine-climbing staccato - a jungle acknowledging
its ferocity, dodging blows as it develops its underdeveloped

       Beside me a great, straw bird laughs as it understands the
emblems of a nailed womb. I drink his pride, and mine all over again:
the briny taste of our sweat.

Then I awaken and my lips are rich with voluptuous hints.

Analysis of  “Primitive sonata

Key to appreciating this poem is to understand what a sonata is. It is a composition written for an instrumental soloist, often with piano accompaniment. Thus, a sonata is a solo with support. The form is most popularly associated with classical music.

But what is a “primitive sonata”? Put differently, what is the most primitive form of a solo with accompaniment? Yes, the human sex act. In this poem, then, and in Després’ startling mind, sex is imagined as a symphony, specifically as a solo performance with support. The reach is, again, brilliant, and no less so for being exact. Who but Després could conceive of such a metaphor?

The poem’s third stanza (conceived on the page as a swelled mid-section – the depiction is intentional) captures the action and the accompaniment. The language simulates increased respiration and heartbeat, the frenzy of desire and the suspension of decorum, all building to “a spine-climbing staccato” that ends in quiet denoument, described here as release and awakening. There is no mistaking what is being described.

To read Després is to enter a world that is strange and magical, but a world completely accessible if we willingly suspend our need to know rationally and urgently. She reminds us that our own inventory of metaphors and images are just that – our own – and not shared universally across all languages and cultures. Which is not to say that her work is incomprehensible – it is, as the foregoing explanations make clear – but that our shortcuts to extracting meaning don’t work well when we move outside our own language-mediated sense of the world.

Questions and Considerations for Reflection

► Després’ poetry begs comparison with the poetry of Herménégilde Chiasson. Compare, for example, Després’ “At The Star-port” with Chiasson’s “Between The Season of Extravagant Love And The Season of Raspberries.” The poems are strikingly similar in how they marshall figurative presentation over literal description. Both address broken-heartedness, but elliptically, following “roman” traditions – not Roman, but roman. Some of the best poets who employ this method write in French, la langue de l’amour.

► Another comparison worth pursuing involves Després, A.G. Bailey, and Douglas Lochhead, three quite different poets who have written extensively about the sea. Specifically, compare Després’ “The tide defines…” with A.G. Bailey’s “Miramichi Lightning” (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment) and Douglas Lochhead’s “Poet talking,” “How was it,” and “Pulse” (see The Tantramar Revisited). Each poet references elemental forces that are both ferocious and life giving, and each concludes that an essential riotousness is at the core of all being.

► The encounter with Acadian writing has made clear that language shapes our perceptions of reality – and that how English shapes what we perceive as real is different from how French shapes the real. Is it too generalizing, though, to conclude that the New Brunswick English poetry we’ve read tends to be more literal than the New Brunswick French poetry, which is more figurative? That may indeed be a generalization, but it is one that invites reflection and one that calls attention to fundamental differences among the Romance and Germanic language systems.

Strategies for Teachers

Strategy 1: Attentiveness (“The tide defines . . .”)

Poetry such as Després’ calls attention to our lack of attention. We read too quickly and only on the surface. We read to extract information rather than seek understanding. Though students may be perplexed by the metaphors and images in this poem, do not attempt to explain or interpret those. Rather, have students create a list of the images, such as “trance-like debris,” “storm-filled hands,” and “foggy moon” as a structure to help organize their thoughts. Then, ask students to attentively observe the tide, not just looking idly but making an effort to see and experience. [If there is not a tide nearby an alternative would be time-lapse videos online.] When they are being carefully attentive to the tide, it is likely that images that might at first have been dismissed as strange or illogical will be revealed as precise and insightful. Follow up with a discussion about the role of observation in poetry and art; do students now understand Susan Sontag’s definition of a writer as “someone who pays attention to the world”?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Reading and Viewing: Articulate and justify points of view about texts and text elements

Strategy 2: Instrumental vs. Imaginative Observation (“The tide defines . . .”)

To help students appreciate the fresh way Després thinks of the tide, devise an activity that has them switching from a logical to an imaginative way of seeing something. A cellphone could be used as the object of scrutiny, though any object of absolute familiarity would do. Hold up a cellphone and ask students what words, impressions, and questions come immediately to mind. Likely mentioned will be colour, cost, manufacturer, operating system, screen size, speed, and apps. These are all instrumental or material qualities, situated in a particular way of seeing the world and receiving information about it. Now, ask students to think outside of the instrumental, outside of how the device has been marketed (and how the language of that marketing has forced them to think about it). Ask them to think of a cellphone the way Després thinks of the tide.

The following questions will help students free their imaginations: If the cellphone was sentient, what would it want? What would it resent? If one were to damage a cellphone with a hammer or lava, at what point would it stop being a cellphone and start being something else? How can what it does (send and receive messages) be expressed metaphorically? To what is its energy and function analogous? If every cellphone in the world simultaneously disappeared, what would happen next? What would a fish or ant see when it looks at a cellphone? What would the Martian of Craig Raine’s poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” make of?

Follow these questions with a writing activity. It might help students to mirror Després’ syntactic structure: “The cellphone verb noun.” Offer an example to get things started, perhaps something like “The cellphone utters absence.” You may encounter resistance, but if students are willing to follow, the results will be startling. The objective is to interrogate one’s own cognitive defaults, and to understand how language positions us to perceive the world in pre-determined ways.

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Writing and Representing: Make effective choices of language and techniques to enhance the impact of imaginative writing and other ways of representing

Strategy 3: Freeze Frame (All poems)

Després’ poems pulse with life and movement. Ask students to select an image from any of her poems to “freeze” into a static picture. Alternatively, select the image yourself. Have students identify any metaphor(s) Després has used in relation to that image, then develop a new metaphor to replace it. For example, if students choose a freeze frame of a wave in “The tide defines . . .,” the absence of movement renders “juggler’s pirouettes” unsuitable. What other metaphor, then, captures the static image of a wave mid-break?

Extension or Alternative Approach: If you have access to a copy of the popular game Apples to Apples, or any of its imitators, it could be used to help students generate inventive metaphors. Hand each student or group of students several cards at the same time as presenting one of the images from the poems, such as a breaking wave. Ask students to take some time to consider, then present one of their cards as a match for the image, explaining their rationale, and perhaps combining the image and card contents in a new line of poetry. Which of the matches is the most creative? Most true? Funniest?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Writing and Representing: Make effective choices of language and techniques to enhance the impact of imaginative writing and other ways of representing

Further Reading

Bolduc, Yves. “Le thème de l’Acadie chez Boudreau, Després, Forest.” Revue d’histoire littéraire du Québec et du Canada français. 12 (1986): 51-57.

Laparra, Manon. “Champ d’écriture, chant de liberté: La parole combustion dans l’oeuvre de Rose Després.” Dalhousie French Studies 62 (2003): 39-49.

Lonergan, David. “Rose Després.” Tintamarre: Chroniques de littérature dans l’Acadie d’aujourd’hui. Sudbury: Prise de parole, 2008. 119-22.

For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies, we normally direct readers to the appropriate entry in The New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia. Though a Rose Després entry is in production, it is not yet finalized. Please check the NBLE periodically for updates.


We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Rose Després and Goose Lane Editions for allowing us to use the poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of these poems, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.

“The tide defines…” and “Primitive sonata” appear in Poésie acadienne contemporaire / Acadian Poetry Now. Ed. Henri-Dominique Paratte. Moncton & Charlottetown: Les Éditions Perce-Neige & Ragweed Press, 1985. “At The Star-port” appears in Unfinished Dreams: Contemporary Poetry of Acadie. Ed. and Trans. Fred Cogswell and Jo-Anne Elder. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 1990.

All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.