In the Footsteps of Marco Polo: Lisa Pasold’s Any Bright Horse

Any Bright Horse tells the story of a modern-day Marco Polo character travelling primarily through Afghanistan and China. Marco Polo was not only a traveller but also one of the world’s original best-selling storytellers and guides, a muse even to Christopher Columbus. Pasold has written in many genres before, and, as a book of poetry, Any Bright Horse is hard to pin down. It is an epic poem in prose form and includes enough of a narrative thread that it feels more like an impressionistic novel—but it isn’t a novel, in the purest sense, because it doesn’t rely on plot or arc and isn’t driven by character or dialogue as much as it is by imagery and language.

Pasold is bilingual and her writing demonstrates a deep appreciation for acquired language: “[T]ravelling,” she writes, “I learned the value of rock, ill-designed though I was for anchoring.” However, due in large part to tension between the narrative nodes and brevity of delivery, not every line hits a lyrical high note or makes meaningful connections. And although the art of travelling is often one of economy and deftness, I would have preferred to see much more content on numerous pages that featured only a tiny fragment of text.

Any Bright Horse appears to be worth its weight, however, as it was recently nominated for the Governor General’s Award, which is no small feat. And that’s also a good sign for Canadian writers, not only because Pasold blurs the boundaries of poetry and, more broadly, literature, but because she also draws on a decidedly international frame of reference—challenging what has been appropriate and long-cherished territory for Canadian authors (primarily the rural and the domestic). On the other hand, the hybridity of her work is really as Canadian as it gets, but culture has a way of playing catch-up with demographics.

Pasold has said elsewhere that this book was an “oblique” comment on Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. This context fascinated me and prompted an immediate re-reading. Unfortunately, the reference is so oblique as to be obtuse. Perhaps the distance of the narration is meant to be part of her commentary, as it is in visual artist Omar Fast’s film “5,000 feet is the best.” The man at the centre of Any Bright Horse is both there and not there—he’s elusive, and he asks us to make sense of his story for him. I have to admit that I felt all potential critical commentary—on Marco Polo as problematic hero; on travel as a bourgeois privilege; on the subjective nature of observing the “Other”—was squandered. At one point, Pasold writes, “It is the responsibility of the listener to keep the story on track.” As persuasive and exotic as the tales within this book may be, I was ultimately not convinced by that sentiment.


Stevie Howell a is a poet and a critic whose work has appeared in numerous journals. In 2012, she was nominated for the inaugural Walrus Poetry Prize and released two chapbooks, Ringsend and Royal.


Arc: as Canadian as it gets.


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