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In the Eye of a Whale:
Sarah de Leeuw's Outside, America

Sarah de Leeuw's Outside, America
Sarah de Leeuw, Outside, America
Vancouver: Nightwood Editions, 2019.

Sarah De Leeuw’s Outside, America collects poems situated on the “outside” – whether the territory lies outside America or outside our doorstep – as well as poems set within American borders – a hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona, a catamaran off the coast of Alaska while whale watching. Throughout, elegiac poems on the poet’s father are threaded with poems containing often wry ecological observations of the typical ironies we experience in the Anthropocene.

One example of this ecological observation is “What women do to fish,” consisting of an inventory, from the obvious—“Well, we eat them raw, of course”—to the equally deadly effects of body washes—“nail-hard pearls with DDT.” Women also offer fish “protection from pregnancy, / knowing that, like us, a small part / of them is always afraid of rape.” The poem functions in part as a riddle to be teased apart. An affinity is suggested here between women and fish, yet with the irony of “offering protection” to the fish, in the form of contraceptive hormones. The poem concludes by asserting fear not only of rape but of “being left alone after a one-night / stand, our urine leaking out of us, / emptying estrogen and progestin / into distant water sheds.”

In “Surfacing behaviour,” the same human affinity to other animals is observed with gentle irony on a whale watching expedition. The speaker observes, “we’re fools trying to take selfies” but we are also “astounded silent” when the whales appear. And the whales, alien yet familiar, are “so animal // but so me too, and so close I look exactly into / an eye and then down a blowhole, breathe in / her exhale and know nothing greater.”

There is deft observation in these poems of the human observer, the eye that observes. But what of the eye of the whale? As with the poem about fish, I wondered how the fish or the whale perspective might be more fully offered in a poem; it may not be possible to offer a “raw” or unmediated perspective, but metaphor in particular, and the aural effects possible in poetry, might offer some interesting avenues. The difficulty of presenting such a perspective is acknowledged in “Drone Notes on Climate Change” where distant images of beluga whales shot from above are read as “white punctuations on an old / elementary school blackboard.” We perceive these animals from the outside, but what lies within?

Of the elegiac poems, “October Chanterelling” is lovely, offering careful observations of father and daughter searching for chanterelles amongst nurse logs and decaying hemlock needles. The father observes, “how one should not rip out other / species in the hunt for chanterelles” and that “the long-gilled stems of edibles / should be cut, orangey-gold stubs.” An earthy analogy rooted in the west coast is suggested. Chanterelles form symbiotic relationships with established trees, such as Douglas fir and western hemlock in Pacific coastal forests; they are ectomycorrhizal meaning they form on the outside of the tree’s roots, taking and giving nourishment to the tree, analogous to a father-daughter relationship. As the poem indicates, their orangey-gold stubs must be “left in the ground for next year because / everything that grows on earth is left // by something else, even daughters.”

Kim Trainor’s second book, Ledi, was a finalist for the 2019 Raymond Souster Award. Her next book, Bluegrass, will appear with Icehouse Press (Gooselane) in 2022. She lives in Vancouver, unceded homelands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Skwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.

 

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