After being knocked out by Catherine Hunter’s astonishing novel After Light, I was craving her new collection of poetry, and there is no doubt that St. Boniface Elegies shows the poet at the height of her powers. These poems tease out the shape of doubt in contemporary life, with lyrical leaps onto the comet-trails of questions about love, death, and memory.
While the poems travel from present-day Dublin to Gabriola Island in the late 1970s, the pieces with the most breadth and movement are those rooted in the eccentricities of living in the city of Winnipeg. Hunter’s facility with the long poem is a pleasure to read; her poetic persona walks through the city, writing the pedestrian as equal parts ecstatic and grief-driven. Recalling contemporary women’s writing that interrogates urban space as both public and private—think of Dionne Brand’s Toronto in thirsty, or Alex Leslie’s more recent Vancouver For Beginners—Hunter’s city-dwellers ask what it means to move through the city as a puzzle, as a pilgrimage, and as a legacy.
Even as it alludes to literary elegy via Rilke’s Duino Elegies in the glosa “The Haunting,” St. Boniface Elegies invokes the personal in all the best ways. Hunter conducts a master class in writing locally and thinking globally, and it is no surprise that St. Boniface Elegies was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. There are multiple hauntings in this book; every corner, every bus route, every view of the river offers layer on layer of images, as Hunter gives voice to the epic scope of the prairie city with its interwoven Indigenous and settler histories. People get lost in familiar spaces; people find and lose one another, and Hunter asks about the shape and focus of grief. In “Two Thousand and Two,” she scrutinizes the meaning of time while defining love as the force that “took me deep into the dead of winter, straight / through its polished lens.” The long poem “Winter Archive” maps the city from airport to the entrance to the underworld at Portage and Main, punctuated by images of lost children imperilled not just by the biting cold but by poverty and neglect.
To read these poems is to invite a new way of looking at the city where you live, its degrees of belonging, its rivers and hospitals and vacant lots. In “Oodena,” a poem named for the open-air observatory at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and the Cree word for “centre of the city,” Hunter’s stanzas oscillate between the known and the unknown, to arrive finally at this hard knowledge:
what I didn’t want to learn, passed
through a lesser opening, became
If you’re lucky and if you pay attention, St. Boniface Elegies will change you.
Tanis MacDonald’s fourth book of poetry, Mobile, was published by Bookhug in Fall 2019. Recent work has appeared in The New Quarterly, FreeFall, Contemporary Verse 2, and Minola Review. She lives in Waterloo, Ontario.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.