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“There are no stories until I ask…”
In this heart-wrenching collection, Vanessa Shields chronicles the life of her Nonna, Maria, from her origins as a seamstress in Italy to her eventual death from dementia. These raw, prosaic poems thread together grief, memory, loss, and love into a conversation that speaks across pages, years, and oceans. Shields bravely interrogates her own feelings of guilt, grief, and curiosity with unflinching precision. As she navigates and accepts Nonna’s decline, Shields takes on the role of witness by excavating the larger narrative that is her Nonna’s legacy. Thimbles is a courageous celebration of the transformative power of love across generations.
“A moving evocation of the pain of loss and of the ties that bind us, at the deepest level, to those we love. Vanessa Shields takes us through a journey that starts in the heartbreak of watching a loved one die but ends, finally, in the triumph of capturing the fullness of a life, in all its heroism and hardship.” Nino Ricci, author of ‘Lives of the Saints’
“Shields has an ear for the ocean, the fugitive word, insect symphonies and the luscious unsaid. Thimbles is a beautiful blaze of a book, a paean to generations of gently brave women, but, most of all, an unforgettable tribute to the gospel of Nonna.” Kyo Maclear, author of ‘Birds, Art, Life: A Year of Observation’
“In thimbles, Vanessa Shields treats the seamstress finger-preservers as symbols–markers–of passage; of needle and thread through fabric, yes, but also of a beloved ancestor, passing from Italy to Canada, and, then, eventually, inevitably, passing on. But Shields is not merely eulogizing, nor is she simplistically sentimental. Instead, the poet is herself threading memories and needling contradictions. She spells out the true meanings of the Italian word nostalgia: Longing and homesickness. Yes, the Old Country is unforgettably loveable and lovely; but Love sports seven-league boots. So, Nonna survives and prospers by sewing “between the cooking and the wine and the self-preservation,” and she teaches the poet that stitching is also the lineation of a poem, whether scarf-skinny, or flour-sack-fat, or as wispy and as tough as silk: “If God didn’t think it was special, he would have put your vagina on your neck.” The bottom line? thimbles reminds us that we are all palimpsests of our innumerable forebears, and what connects our endlessly reflected mirror selves is Love.” George Elliott Clarke, 4th Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012-15) & 7th Parliamentary (Canadian) Poet Laureate (2016-17)
“Thimbles takes us on a journey – what it means to love and lose family and culture, intensely stitched together by a master seamstress from the old country. Through the lens of immigration – two worlds, the old country and the new, health and illness, we are poignantly reminded of the bond between Nonna and nipotina, grandmother and granddaughter. The love is tangible here, one can feel it just in picking up the book.” Tina Biello, poet and playwright
“In thimbles, Vanessa Shields gathers fragments of memory and history, piecing together her grandmother’s life in a loving and poetic tribute that draws the reader into a life’s journey that begins in Italy and then moves across the sea to Canada—to the border city of Windsor. This collection of poetry takes you into the warmth of an Italian Nonna’s kitchen and family, with the poems serving as witness to the ways in which a grandmother can weave the lives of many women together in a matrilineal tapestry of inherited love. As readers, we walk alongside the poet, watching her Nonna age and fall into illness. Shields has fashioned an engaging collection of poems that will ‘bury into your sternum’ and lodge themselves in your heart.” Kim Fahner, author of ‘Some Other Sky’, ‘These Wings’
“The thimble used in sewing involves the shielding of the fingertip or thumb while you’re engaged in the pushing of a needle through leather or cloth. Vanessa Shields has crafted a book of poems called Thimbles wherein her thimbles are metaphors put to the service of sheltering the heart. In her thimble she crowds the love we have for those whom we love and have loved the most, and she thereby mends the broken-hearted self by crafting poems that are an homage to one of those she has lost. The hand moves and the heart of the reader responds as Vanessa Shields’ beloved Nona comes to life in memory and imagination. These poems in truth are “un bacin d’amore” and we who receive that kiss of love however vicariously know that this kiss is also the kiss of life. As she writes in the closing lines of her final poem: “when I die I want your thimble on my finger/so I can find you and we can begin to sew again”. ” John B. Lee Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity, Poet Laureate of Norfolk County for life, Poet Laureate of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance (2020-2023)
“In this astonishing, gut-wrenching, and beautiful collection of poems about her Nonna, Vanessa Shields draws on the language of the mundane to explore the sacred geography of the aging female body, the dignity of traditional “woman’s work,” the strength and wisdom of a matriarch, the agony of loss, and the importance of family.” Irene Moore Davis, author of ‘Our Own Two Hands: A History of Black Lives in Windsor’
“A wonderful weaving of prose, poetry and lists to present a life of love, family and the experiences of her grandmother’s immigration. I feel so close to Nonna, can almost smell her cooking, hear her wiseness and feel that regret we have for never feeling like we can know enough about our roots. Vanessa captures grief, love and family in each piece, while also showing us all the ways poetry can exist in form and feeling. Grief is never just one thing, and this collection embraces it all in a way that is so freeing to experience as a reader.” Charlie Petch, recipient of the Golden Beret Lifetime Achievement Award in Spoken Word
“Agonizing, piercingly beautiful, and blazing with courage, thimbles takes a no-holds barred look at Vanessa Shield’s relationship with her dying and beloved grandmother. The poems unfurl like a reel of a vintage film, with all the texture and colour of a life devoted to sewing and nurturing her family in the face of steady and incomprehensible suffering. For anyone who has experienced the decline and loss of a loved one, these poems ring true with both passion and compassion, threaded through with the miraculous power of boundless, unconditional love, both given and received.” Charis Cotter, award-winning author of ‘The Swallow’ and ‘The Ghost Road’
“i found her dressmaker’s shears while she was sleeping/i cut into her past & freed up her laughter” (p. 44)
I loved it! Thimbles is Vanessa Shields’s best poetry collection to date. Her work not only explores a new maturity in subject matter but her use of the sewing and mountain themes and motifs beautifully stitch together the narrative thread of her 94 poems.
At first, I wasn’t sure I would be able to handle another book about grief especially during the pandemic lockdown, but Shields’s poetic tribute to her nonna read like a well-crafted novel. Divided into three sections: un bacon d’amor; only the good lasts; and domain e un alter giorno, the work pulls in the reader with the introduction of nonna as child, teen, seamstress, and mother and then builds on family relationships, followed by the challenges of her dementia and her family’s reactions to her demise.
“she is threads of light” (p. 83) “dimples like the tip of a thimble” (p. 83)
Heartwarming, tender, personal! A colour-coordinated patchwork of lyrical emotions! Hear my applause!
Deb Okun Hill, author of ‘Tarnished Trophies’