Canada’s colonial history is fraught, so in Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, Liz Howard approaches it as a complex field one can enter, but not totally know. Within that field lies the speaker’s absent, drunk father, her welfare-collecting, painter mother, “settler dreams,” Copernicus, her great-grandfather, Erín Moure, Coyote, Wittgenstein and much more.
Coyote and Wittgenstein provide important clues to Infinite Citizen. In Native myth, Coyote’s main attribute tends to be some form of evasiveness, or trickery (even when those traits accompany great acts of creation). Wittgenstein, meanwhile, casts doubt on our basic trust in language and the self. Both figures militate against certainty. Coyote appears in “Psychogeography” as either “this young man / in the convenience store” or as “Whitecrow in Fort Frances after the hunt.” The speaker is not sure. A Wittgenstein quote, meanwhile, opens “Thinktent,” which offers two choices:
to not be
inside my own head perpetually
not simply Wittgenstein’s girl
but an infinite citizen in a shaking tent
The tension between psychological isolation and infinite citizenship is only partially resolved:
What little there is beyond impermanence
conspires with a half a mind on the original
to sew us closed
Notice the lack of periods on both of the above quotes, both of which end a poem. Infinite Citizen features few periods, just as it resolves little. Howard owns that uncertainty: “vertigo, vertigo, the rush of the vertical // It’s ours.” Notice the capitalization of the pronoun there, despite the lack of a period. In one of four poems called “Standard Time,” the speaker is embracing flux, triumphantly.
“Steinian Aphasia” embraces “a permanence of flux,” which while “disconcerting,” is also unavoidable. That flux is borne out by prosody as well. The book is mostly consistent in style while allowing for variation. A prose poem, a page featuring parallel poems, and sharp turns in tone break up the book’s mostly skinny, and subtly evasive, lyrics.
Infinite Citizen is by turns confessional and historical, and often both, like Dionne Brand’s No Land to Light On. Later, the shadow of Lisa Robertson, or Margaret Christakos, hovers in the poems’ disjunctive grammatical structures. But the poems also break that spell, and ground us. In that, Howard’s work resembles Ken Babstock’s “Light Sweet Crude” (he edited Infinite Citizen). Babstock, like Howard, has shown a remarkable ability to connect a poem’s cosmic-level to something utterly Earth bound.
To simply compare Howard to these poets would be unfair. Take Howard’s poem-grounding strategy. Where Babstock tends to ground the poem via the reader’s heartstrings—”No one occupies me like me. And no one / makes me lonelier”—Howard wakes us like cold water on the face. However far out the book goes, Howard reminds us we are still “LOLing / in the middle / of mere existence.” After failing to confirm the self in “Thinktent,” the speaker spills wine and explains, “neither the flute of wine nor the carpet / existed for me.” Convenient excuse. It is as often deadpan realism that ends our trance: “dearest ones please know / I’ll do my best not to die young / in Toronto.”
Infinite Citizen is sonically attuned. Some readers might sigh at lines like “at the tariff of longing” but such lines are carefully situated so as to not over-inflate (that one is grounded by the “LOLing” moment.) They are also drowned out by startling moments of musical clarity:
let it in
let it in and let
our consumptive prom
or of imagistic beauty:
receive me caught in mayflies
a verdant symptom through
the porch screen of you
Those last lines closely proceed Infinite Citizen‘s final triplet, which describes how the book should be read:
we simply tumble down
the rote division
Note: there is no period, and no end.
E Martin Nolan writes poetry and essays. He’s an associate editor at The Puritan Magazine. He teaches Engineering Communication at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.
ARC: POETRY WITHOUT END!