In his poetry collection Famous Roadkill, Saskatchewan poet Allan Safarik opens with the acknowledgment that “These poems were written in 2011 in the historic Jacoby House (1906) in Dundurn, Saskatchewan. A quiet location in a rural town 35 km south of Saskatoon just off the Number 11 Highway.” It’s been a number of years since I’ve read through Safarik’s work, having been more familiar with his working-class Vancouver poetry from the 1980s, around the time he edited the anthology Vancouver Poetry (Polestar, 1986). Saskatchewan poetry over the years has long been characterized, it seems, by long, narrative stretches and lyric metaphor-driven storytelling, influenced in part by writers such as the late prairie poets Andrew Suknaski and Anne Szumigalski. I have often wondered about poetry that reads more like prose with line breaks, and yet, for writers like Suknaski, it was the unbridled, nuanced lines (“loping coyote lines,” as he called them) that made all the difference.
Safarik’s short poems are about hard work and death, rough landscapes and abstract dreamscapes, and they reference a number of his concerns and markers, whether geographic or poetic, including Estevan, Dylan Thomas, the twentieth century, the Great Horned Owl, Czeslaw Milosz, and Saskatoon. In poetry that focuses on small declarations and local landmarks, some of his abstractions become difficult to follow, and some of his stories read so straight as to make the reader wonder what their purpose might be. Although a poem such as “The Summoning,” for instance, comes out of 1970s-era Andrew Suknaski, Safarik does not seem to have harnessed the skill to make Suknaski’s techniques sing. “The Summoning” opens:
Looking at the worn out photos
of peasant farmers from an earlier era
in a country whose name and borders
have changed often in dividing times
here are the isolated, serious faces
the unhappy few who were caught
by the camera before they were ready to smile.
These poems don’t read as portraits, but they often leave too much out to provide a proper picture. Too often, the poems in Safarik’s Famous Roadkill appear descriptive without an apparent purpose, simply showing off for its own sake—and they lack a required nuance. Still, there are occasional moments that do transcend, as in the fourth and final stanza of “Dryland,” which reads, “In a small graveyard / a few family names repeat / in a sequence of straight rows / Strangers die in other places.” Certainly Safarik’s Famous Roadkill is a tribute to the prairie local, but one that hasn’t learned well enough from previous works in the same vein, whether Andrew Suknaski’s Wood Mountain (1976) or Eli Mandel’s Out of Place (1977).
rob mclennan is author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. The most recent is Songs for little sleep, (obvious epiphanies press, 2012). He blogs at robmclennan.blogspot.com.