Phoebe Wang’s Admission Requirements is, from the title itself, a collection inflected with tender irony. Admission, here, appears in all its meanings: the act of letting in; the privilege of being allowed, and the price paid for it; the acceptance of difficult truths. Variations of the word “settler” appear throughout, in double entendres. One could think of Wang’s poetry as an introspective land acknowledgement.
The poems consider and re-consider possession, tenancy, barter, theft, and gift, as though in search of re-imagined histories and relations. In “The Japanese Garden,” Wang writes:
… If an asylum is your ultimate
ambition, there’s a waiting room
screened off by bamboo where you can bide
by the custom – washing your hands
of indiscretions, humbling yourself before
the crawling-in entrance. Here within
the swaddled groves, the paper rooms, you’ll find
the transparency you believed in.
This is the sixth poem in the book, subtitled “Nitobe Memorial Garden.” Throughout, Wang calls out place names, as if playing a game of Marco Polo between poems: from B.C.’s Wreck Beach to the Ottawa Valley; the Métro in Montréal and the Nova Era Bakery in Toronto; as far as Hong Kong and its offshore islands.
Wang is deeply concerned with earth, from the geological memory of “an inner sea / where whales rolled like insomniacs,” to backyard archaeologies where arrowheads rest not far from a rusty push-mower, to quarries overrun by goldenrod. Processes of unwilding and rewilding are in constant movement.
She maps a land marked by colonization: abandoned fields, crumbling escarpments, toxin-laced ground, dammed bodies of water, and invasive species. In so doing she acknowledges a legacy which is not exactly disaster but the familiar slow deterioration we have come, often unthinkingly, to live with.
It is this vague anxiety that Wang pierces with exactitude. Writing of family picnics by the LeBreton Flats, Wang notes how little we know of where we are, the solitude that racism creates, and the desire for a solidarity that can’t quite be realized:
We never caught another family
by the old paper plants, picking mica
between the rail ties, nor did we enlist guides.
I ask now – people of the river, Anishinaabe,
how do I cede what was never mine?
Still, Wang makes gestures of ceding, claiming and re-claiming. Her language is vividly open, her metaphors vulnerable and generous: “I skip over the rail ties that shuttled women / to the canneries studding the Fraser’s open throat.”
The poems’ temperament is one of wry authority, direct but without imposition. Wang has a skill for statements that are quietly declarative and unapologetic, that often double as ars poetica: “If there’s a lesson to be learned here / it’s that you have to be / in the midst of it, waist-high in the Queen’s / Anne lace, crabgrass, scrap metal,” she writes in “Portage.”
Some of the collection’s most deeply-felt poems honour her own family: a mother’s work, a raging father, a missing sister. In “Still Life with Fallen Fruit,” Wang remembers plucking wild grapes and rosehips from the roadside at her mother’s insistence, the hasty gathering with makeshift containers, and the interior whisper of the poet’s shame:
Is any of this yours to take?
Rinsed, picked over, boiled down, and sealed
tight with barely a taste, the fruits of her labour
were more than what we’d come for,
and nothing gone to waste.
Yet the sensuality of Wang’s language―the poem so full of light, colour, taste, voice and gesture―tells us everything about how deeply embodied the memory is, and how inhabiting that experience is worth so much more than possession.
Soraya Peerbaye is the author of Tell: Poems for a Girlhood (Pedlar Press, 2015) and Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names (Goose Lane, 2009). She lives in Toronto.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.