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Riffled and Recoiling:
Jan Conn's Tomorrow’s Bright White Light

Jan Conn, Tomorrow’s Bright White Light
Toronto: Tightrope Books, 2016.

Tomorrow’s Bright White Light, Jan Conn’s ninth book of poetry, is a slender volume, but its poems offer the same detail density and associative leaps of reason as her previous work. Conn’s title suggests a future-oriented, even hopeful poetics, and though in the opening poem the speaker says, “I am all pause, all / hesitation” (the line pausing along with her), there is little hesitation in the inquiring mind of these poems, a mind willing to enter into the world’s physical and theoretical detritus. But the inquisitive futurity of these poems does rub up against stasis, physical inability, and the inescapable present: more than once Conn traces “our inability to place one foot / in front of the other.” Near the end of the book the speaker tells us: “The continual present is all that is allowed.” The present encroaches on the future so that warnings turn into irrevocable facts: in “Lac-Megantic” Conn’s speaker tells us, “Human community as we know it / already unrecoverable.”

Conn’s work is timely in its depictions of political precarity as well as environmental collapse, from a speaker’s “undocumented status” to “Our cars and our lives uninsured,” though the reading experience is not particularly emotional. Threats to personal existence and to world-view are not characterized by ephemerality or disappearance, but rather by accumulation of detail, “nickel-encrusted skeletons / or sea hunters’ knives glued to bookshelves.” Conn does not offer rural settings as retreats from urban life, though both settings appear here, but as further places of encounter, full of stuff, where “phlox is running riot.” At times the leaps of thought and content from line to line leave context opaque: I can’t tell what the stakes are, where my allegiances lie. As the book proceeds, however, poems muster their details to paint almost ekphrastic scenes through Conn’s always masterful diction, evident throughout in lines such as: “riffled, clay-coloured effluent, recoiling.”

“We” echoes throughout the book, for “tomorrow” comes for us all, “a large community of those at loose ends / or disaffected.” Any vision of the future, hopeful, weak, or apocalyptic—the climate crashing down among us—demands collectivity:

I intended to say something
philosophical about modern thought
and the flow of time,
not like we are
their bleak centrepiece.

Conn’s other professional life as a geneticist informs her poetry’s confidence in and curiosity about the phenomenological world. Physical sensation collides with theoretical inquiry: “Which is more pervasive, night mist / or provincialism?” While she might note in passing detail birds and trees—those Canadian poetry staples—she often turns us instead toward the insects: ants, roaches, moths, wasps, termites—until “Morning / is filtered through the lens of their discarded // translucent wings.” These lovely lines return us to the book’s title, brilliantly complicating, as these poems do, its seeming optimism: tomorrow’s light may be bright, yes, but in what ways is it filtered? What lenses are we looking through?


Lise Gaston’s first poetry collection, Cityscapes in Mating Season, appeared in 2017 with Signature Editions. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta, and Berkeley, California.