A Portrait of the Poet as Tidalectic Sound Artist: Magnetic Equator by Kaie Kellough

Kaie Kellough is the Canadian winner of the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize for Magnetic Equator, his third book of poetry, in which he crafts the self-portrait of an increasingly strong poet as tidalectic sound artist.

The book’s first section, “Kaieteur Falls,” is a chaotic puzzle of cacophonic typographies, a codex of portmanteau words that echoes throughout the book in tides of sonic echoes with the linguistic force of a tsunami.

The hypnotic anaphora of the second section of the book, “mantra of no return,” tells of human cargo, the legacy of slavery, and the migrations of the living and the dead: “people departed and / arrived again. people retreaded. people stole knowing. people plantation. / people horizon. people done run from people. people arrived not knowing / their patterns. people arrived riven, alone in the world.”

You can hear the performativity here, especially if you’ve been fortunate enough to hear Kellough performing his sound art and poetry as he’s crisscrossed North America. In addition to all the references to water and tides, what makes Magnetic Equator trans-oceanic are the relations it explores between three principal venues: Calgary, where Kellough grew up; Montréal, where he moved after leaving Calgary; and Guyana, the homeland of his mother’s side of the family, where he goes in a quest to find his roots. In Montréal, he finds a polyglot city of hybridities where he transcends the rancor (and danger) of his youth, while in Guyana he finds political chaos spiked with unmistakable energy.

As we move from Calgary, to Guyana, to Montréal, we’re met with the paradoxes of diaspora, of being uprooted and rootless, never quite at home. The genesis of the work lies in the poet’s youth in Calgary, with his necessary rebellion against the colonizing, monolithic, majority-white, indigenous-denying oil/gas-dominated culture. In a powerful account of an aborted suicide attempt in the section “zero degrees,” there’s a vivifying rage in the negation of Robert Kroetsch’s poetics from his celebrated, autobiographical long poem “Seed Catalogue”: “1. take old newspapers: the calgary herald, the globe and mail / 2. take scotch tape / 3. take rubber tubing, black, coiled in a suburban garage.”

The list continues like this, but the events culminate, thankfully, with the will of the poet’s body overtaking his desire to give himself over to his “terminal taking”: “if anyone were to look in the window they would / not see the boy lolling in the back seat. the air is dense, unbreathable, but the / body still heaves. its biology drives it to . this is its will.”

We are so fortunate that this tragedy was averted, that Kellough survived to write lines Canada needs to hear, lines offering refuge to people arriving riven and alone in the world, lines like these from “alterity,” one of the book’s later sections: “nameless to the news, welcome / amorphous file seeking asylum, stragglers in the sun’s eye / vanguard of the welcome exodus, wandering toward / welcome in taxis, roxham border, the crossing.”

Magnetic Equator‘s strength is in how Kellough’s concern for his fellow humans transcends the book’s lyric/confessional genesis, and in how his more inventive poetics perform the sonic space of public life, while honouring the dead and welcoming the tidal flux of the living.


Mark Grenon’s poetry and reviews have appeared in The Antigonish Review, carte blanche, Debutantes/Debbie, filling Station, the Hamilton Review of Books, Matrix, the Ottawa Arts Review, PRISM international, The Puritan, and Vallum. Originally from Ottawa, he’s taught ESL in the Czech Republic, Taiwan, and Chile, and lives in Montréal




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