New last year from icehouse poetry, Allison LaSorda’s Stray is the rare debut collection that emerges brimming and whole. LaSorda’s poetry is both specimen and magnifying glass, her speaker displaced by death, the strangeness of becoming, and the realization she is at times more stray animal than rooted human being. LaSorda invokes the natural world―lionfish in a cloudy tank, an eight-point buck among the trees, passerines, mollusks―to tease out the more delicate questions of how to move forward after a loss, how to grow up inside a body.
Built on a great discomfort, the work is sectioned by class―“Fish,” “Bird,” “Meat”―with the poems tracking adolescent uncertainty to adult behaviours. The early pieces are consumed with water, the speaker a young swimmer trampling sandcastles, raising pollywogs, attempting to shed one skin while questioning the next. In “Dog Star” the speaker confesses “Inside me a hare skitters. / A man installed it as my spirit animal, / but it doesn’t fit right. I hate running. I prefer dogs,” while “Hit the Beach” asks “If my temperament / is more sand trap than sandbar, / how can I ever grow up?” The struggle for maturity and mooring leaves LaSorda’s speaker between phases, the sea an imperfect emblem: “My anxiety’s / origin story isn’t in bleached reefs / or fault lines, it’s in maws / gaping with somedays.”
The metamorphosis of Stray’s speaker is further complicated by the death of her father, his absence the first fact of the book. The opening poem “Backstroke” begins “I was on the other line / when you were dying, Daddio,” setting the tone for the entire work as a movement forward facing the wrong direction. Progress for LaSorda becomes suspect, her speaker clinging to her foundations: “We want as long as possible to figure out / what might be beautiful about loss.” Between whirling Russian dances and sodden liaisons, LaSorda approaches life’s bleakness with scientific precision, for after all, “Once dead we all disappoint someone.” Stray wrestles with grief and pointlessness, concluding at almost its midpoint that “Living is waving your arms for help in the pitch dark.”
In contrast to its destabilizing events, Stray houses the kind of poetry that, in its craft and exactness, seems effortless. LaSorda assembles lines and breaks as though they always existed, just so, her diction clear and clean in service to her insights. The collection is a treasure trove of opening lines: “Shark Year” declares “When I died the first time, / I got a sinking feeling,” while “Ricochet” begins “A body walks by / on my legs.” Written with deep intelligence and grip, these poems show LaSorda to be an observer’s observer.
The austere science of LaSorda’s investigation does not leave her collection adrift. Stray posits attention itself as an answer to grief―if not a balm, then a way of getting through. In the closing poem, the speaker recalls her father’s gleeful habit of misidentifying fields of cows as herds of deer, and writes:
I am controlled by this promise. To see
a thing less fragile but just as strange
and worthy. Like a seagull is an eagle
to each memory, perfect in its place.
It is rare for such tumult to be undergone with such an exact eye. LaSorda has been tossed on suspect waters, but emerges, vantage point entirely intact.
Emily Davidson is a writer from Saint John, New Brunswick, living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her poetry has appeared in publications including Arc, CV2, Descant, The Fiddlehead, Room, subTerrain, and The Best Canadian Poetry 2015. Her fiction has appeared in Grain and is forthcoming with Maisonneuve. She writes literary reviews for Arc and Poetry is Dead.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.