I read Claire Caldwell’s slim-but-succulent poetry collection Invasive Species while lying on my back at four-thirty in the morning, in a tent tucked beneath the slim boughs of a red pine. These conditions might be difficult to find for city-locked readers, but I recommend attempting to replicate them as closely as possible. This reserved-yet-untraditional, fresh-yet-somehow-classical work pairs best with a natural environment.
Thematically, Caldwell’s latest work is quite varied. Poems such as “See Also: Arctic Shrinkage” take us to the North Pole, “La Gamine” to Paris, “Sebastian and His Father” to the breakfast table. The work weaves between the rural and the urban, the natural and artificial, the international and domestic – which is to say, perhaps, that Invasive Species is both distinctly contemporary and Canadian.
Common to all the works, however, is conflict. Sometimes this conflict is personal, the malleability of belonging and memory, as in “Here is a History,” other times it’s universal, the uncertainty of an individual held between the natural and human world, as in “Grizzly Woman,” where “love makes us / godly – greater / than the sum of our calories,” and yet the speaker still feels vulnerable to the possibility that, “a grizzly will pluck (her) ribs / like a bunch of bananas.” Caldwell handles these tensions with a sort of unconscious grace, staging small battles that end in truces but never victories. Invasive Species is a delightful hodgepodge as Caldwell draws on feral cats, soldiers, mastodons, whales, Venice, mothers and cryptozoologists as if exploring with fascination the one thousand little things that have fallen to the bottom of her junk drawer.
While the majority of these poems are well-written and interesting, readers may find them so stylistically similar that the works become repetitive and start to run together if one reads too many of them back to back. On the other hand, this consistency of style means that one can open up the book to nearly any page at random and find something of quality. The poem “November,” with its line, “The difficulty of the cold morning, / of rising with the sun still barely clinging / to the branches,” stands out particularly in this collection, and will have special appeal to anyone who has ever lived in the far north, where many of Caldwell’s nature poems are set. Disappointingly, the collection’s title poem “Invasive Species” feels flat and slightly preachy in contrast to more stylistically interesting and daring poems like “Bear Safety,” wherein, if charged by a bear, you are instructed, “to remain casual. / Send a friendly, noncommittal text,” or “Sibling Rivalry” where the speaker’s brother, “was smuggling colts across the Caspian Sea.”
Overall this is a collection which, if not ambitious, has integrity; lyrical, intelligent and consistently satisfying, with only one or two weak poems, and several extraordinary ones. Readers with a taste for Canadian poetry sans mindless Canadiana should find Invasive Species a welcome addition to their shelves.
Lori Garrison is a writer, poet and reviewer whose work has appeared in QWERTY, Northern Public Affairs and The Rusty Toque. She lives in Whitehorse, YT, where her hobbies include trout fishing and waiting for spring.