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A poetic love letter to Ottawa:
rob mclennan's A halt, which is empty

rob mclennan, A halt, which is empty
Toronto: Mansfield Press, 2019.

This beautiful book of poems is rooted in the history of Ottawa, but opens itself into so much more as you read through it. mclennan, a prolific writer, reviewer, and publisher of poetry, lives and works there. The epigraph to the first section, from Sarah Mangold’s “An Antenna Called the Body”, sets the tone, suggesting that we need to realize that we all should begin at a place of “not knowing.” From there, we can reconstruct our own meanings, histories, and personal stories.

One would be mistaken to think this is just a simple book of historical poems, though. It isn’t dusty and worn, but instead is so very vibrant and alive. Each piece is popping with poetic energy, something which is a hallmark of mclennan’s poetic work. In “Mother Firth,” the poet creates a cluster of twelve small poems that trace the beginnings of settlement in the Ottawa area. The ninth piece is artful, as they all are. In that numbered piece, mclennan writes of how “Empire, what Dominion, // cut from cedar boughs, birchbark, / maple.” He alludes to the colonization of First Nations lands by referring to the destruction of trees.

mclennan uses language and poetics with a keen sense of awareness. In “shadow-puppet, everything is moonlit,” he writes evocatively of “the cadence of the city,” of the river and canal, and of “the necklace of floating logs.” Anyone who has lived in Ottawa can see how you can trace its history through its urban planning and structure. What this poet also does, though, is sing a song of tribute to the way in which cities are envisioned, formed, brought into being, and quietly invite us to consider how we fit in.  

In “Quarters: Calgary,” there are four poems that are almost prismed, somewhat reminiscent of the old paper origami Fortune Tellers that kids used to make in elementary school. You get a good sense of mclennan’s skill when you read something like this in “Quadrant: two.” He writes:

     Urban planning doesn’t fence. Magpie. Birds track, patterns. Radar,
     fumes. Breath, my neck. Atop the lungs, a trail. This little sweetness.
     Wheel, reverse.

     Ship, adrift. They coin a term.

These are images that are artfully layered, stippled with light and shadow, so that you are called to enter into the work and consider what it means to live in a city, and what it means to live carefully, to be observant of what is around you, and to notice the way in which a city breathes.

Poems like “Dear Catherine,” “Corporation of Snow,” and “Love letter,” as well as the gathered poems found in the sections titled “site map: draft,” “The particular and busy lives of side streets,” and “Poem at Forty-two” are all beautiful and multi-faceted. Every one of the poems sings. You end up having finished reading mclennan’s A halt, which is empty knowing that you’ll return to it over and over again, glad for its well-crafted artistry.

 

Kim Fahner was the fourth poet laureate in Sudbury, Ontario (2016-18). Her fifth book of poems, These Wings, was published in Spring 2019 by Pedlar Press. Her author website is www.kimfahner.com

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