Dust Maps: Brenda Schmidt’s Grid

I read Grid with a lot of curiosity about its title, for the back-cover blurb about living “off the grid” seemed true enough but entirely too easy a metaphor. These poems use rural life in northern Saskatchewan to propose an existential dilemma whereby the beauty of distance squares off against the queasiness of intimacy. The grid is a visual metaphor: the patterns of roads travelled by trucks and cars that are forever heading somewhere else; the parallel lines made by harrows and tractors; even the checkerboard pattern made by quarter-sections of farmland. But most pertinent to the collection, the word “grid” works linguistically: it’s a near-homonym of “grit” and, more than once, my eyes changed the order of the letters to read the word as “gird”—to encircle for protection—perhaps best read as a warning to the reader looking solely for beauty. Caveat emptor: Brenda Schmidt has an uncanny ability to find exactly the sharp shock of pain hidden in the lyric moment.

There is grit in these poems, so much that it seems unfair to think of them as nature poems; like the best nature writing, they undo our expectations of nature rather than uphold them. Schmidt’s most thoroughly mined poetic territory is close observation, as she discovers not only a luminous presence (a rare bird, a stunning photograph, the sublime moment) but also forwards jolting reminders of absences that demand attention: a history of colonialism, dying relatives, the debate about childlessness, isolations of all kinds. Sometimes, Schmidt recasts the act of watching as a revelation of guilt, as in “Barometric,” when a weather report shifts into the memory of a man’s face and the speaker’s recognition of the “current conditions” of his age: “roads through the stubble, / ruts in his lips then / I recognized the greyness the storm / I can’t wait out.” “Too Far” begins as a mediation on driving northern roads in winter—and Grid serves up plenty of winter – and ends with the eerily apt simile of a Great Grey owl that “looks up / like a doctor might from a chart with bad news.”

While most of the pieces are straight-ahead lyrics, Schmidt threads a wild humour through many of the poems, and her tone—sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes fierce—reminds me of the guffaw-out-loud-then-stop-guiltily comedic ironies used by Susan Holbrook and Jeanette Lynes. “Express Lane, with American Scientist in Hand” turns the tables on looking in order to riff on the discomfort of being watched and judged for one’s reading material, while the satirical stance of “To Those Considering a Return to the Land”—including step-by-step instructions for the Saskatchewan version of a hot-stone massage—strikes just the right balance between amused bitterness and social parody. I can taste the dust in this one, and I think everyone would benefit from getting a bit of this kind of grit in their eyes.


Tanis MacDonald lives in Waterloo, Ontario, where she teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her latest poetry book is Rue The Day (Turnstone Press).


Arc: undo your expectations of poetry.

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