Paulette Jiles' Waterloo Express is made up of blues, shouts and meditations at the razor's edge. It's a sometimes electrifying fusion of folk and sophistication. The author is often presented in folk outline: she laments a string of busted love affairs, hits the road again and again to forget, and can talk as sardonic and lowdown as any blues momma. Yet the TNT and agony she drags around come crackling out in images of manic brilliance, controlled by a frequently superb ear. Jiles moves through the imaginative terrain of Plath, Atwood, perhaps Neruda, as naturally as through Bessie Smith, Kitty Wells, Joplin.
The poems go from hillbilly country in the United States to Toronto, then halfway round the world in an outside attempt to ditch the blues, then back to Canada. The round-the-world section is the least successful for me; too many poems consist of a series of knockout images but no poem. And the constant solipsism gets to be almost comical; it simply isn't true that every landscape on the planet is mined with Jiles' pain. Nevertheless, Waterloo Express is a gutsy, hard-edge book of real distinction. (p. 34)
Dennis Lee, in Saturday Night, December, 1973.
Paulette Jiles flashes words through train windows. Every poem in her first book, Waterloo Express, is a frame in a travelogue. The poems are points in the locus of a journey which takes the character everywhere in search of an author….
The secrets of each new landscape are released with terrific energy as the poet tears through earth and air in the search for herself. She becomes the vehicle she rides, burning steel and cresting waves, learning and looking. In the process, she leaves the feminine stereotypes behind. She has taken over the traditional territory of the masculine romance figure, understanding earth and water, which have no dominion over her. She is always ahead of the seasons….
Jiles is a lyric poet tumbling songs off the high wire where she skips alone. The dizzy music is checked only when she stumbles on the similies she has failed to heat into metaphor. The fantasy is aborted when we collide with "like", the clumsy reminder that we are only riders of the subway and not astronauts. There is no time in Jiles' fast ride for ordinary machinery. The images have a life of their own.
In visual terms, the poems are like the paints of Marc Chagall. Gorgeous disconnected figures float by on wisps of cloud and magic carpets of flowers. All the paraphernalia of life's circus is assembled in a giant mobile moving in the wind.
So much nervous energy is consumed in the effort to organize and move through the jumble of images. It is given off in the music of exposed nerves. The sounds of ordinary life, selected, become surreal, a neurotic accompaniment to the poetry….
In the process of trying on countries, people and suits of clothes, Jiles has become a troubadour. Music is her real author. It is the sound of the footsteps that keep her walking….
Always she is listening, trying to find some meaning in strange voices; the scream of wheels on track, the noises of loving and dying, and the wise conversation of birds. (p. 122)
Linda Rogers, in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1974.
Although Jiles … uses time to organize Waterloo Express and comments on such aspects of it as "Clocks," images and motifs of place, space, and travel also provide some of the volume's most important patterns. Jiles' fascination for such images is indicated in the title and opening poem where the poet hops on the "Waterloo Express," rips up herself and her identity—"there they go—a toe, a finger, my coat"—as the train rips "up the dawn," pares herself down to "one white eye," and heads for whatever "Waterloo" may bring. As the rest of the poems reveal, Jiles' journeys to such places as "Brownsville," France, and Spain bring neither victory nor disaster. She concludes [in "Schooner Cove"]:
We have travelled so far,
from indifference to discovery.
We have become larger and more desperate
than the government itself….
These lines with their prosaic structure, careful punctuation, ambiguity of meaning, and ironic undercutting both show some of Jiles' most effective techniques and suggest her feelings about her travels. The tone of "Schooner Cove," like that of many of the poems, is one of sadness and desperation. The sadness, however, is controlled and the desperation quiet. Thus, the reader leaves the volume with the feeling that Jiles is still much too interested in the world and her role in it, even in the "government itself," to drown in her desperation or to stay permanently in the cove. It is this sense of resiliency which makes Paulette Jiles' landscape in Waterloo Express appealing. (p. 42)
Mary Jane Edwards, in The Canadian Forum, August, 1974