Sexual Wilderness: Sarah de Leeuw’s Geographies of a Lover

This review also appears in Arc 72, The North. See our print issue for further reviews of great books, along with scintillating poetry, thought-provoking essays and more.

Sarah de Leeuw. Geographies of a Lover.

Sarah de Leeuw. Geographies of a Lover. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2012.
~Reviewed by Emily McGiffin
Distance. Place. Topography. Scale. Mapping. Contour lines. Borderlands. North. The eight sections of Sarah de Leeuw’s debut collection of poems, Geographies of a Lover, are named for ways in which we orient ourselves within wildernesses, stake our claim over them, and prevent ourselves from getting lost. Within each section, the poem titles are a catalogue of GPS points: 46048’ 50.09” N 71010’ 58.43” W, for example, or 54019’ 00.29” N 130017’ 13.13” W. These geographical references—like a UTM grid overlaid on the living ground that a map represents—are superimposed on a suite of poems that surges with the muscular and unpredictable vitality of the landscape itself. In clear, direct prose, the leading poem of each section marks a new “x” on the map of an illicit and star-crossed love affair. The poems that follow document the relationship in language that binds sexual imagery to portrayals of landscapes both inhabited and wild:

warm lack of darkness is your absence, i miss your forget-me-not blue
cock veins like vines on a rough limestone surface, if you were here i
would say ease into me illuminated in the half light, bending as malleably
as the hooves on a newly born moose calf, softened bone they slip
unharming against the great walls of vaginal track, kicking and struggling
to stand upright i would do the opposite….

de Leeuw’s style addresses a void in the landscape of Canadian poetry—language that is confidently and startlingly sexual—and offers a fresh take on the allegory of human-relationship-as-geography. By fusing human carnality and desire with the natural world, the poems suggest that sexual awakening can rouse in us the Eros needed to see ourselves as part of a wilderness in crisis. The daring scope and originality of the book earned de Leeuw, who teaches at the University of Northern British Columbia, the 2013 Dorothy Livesay Award for best book of poetry by a BC author.

Yet despite the lovers’ successful quest for sexual fulfillment, the book presents a story in which such connections ultimately fail. The relationship between the lovers is reminiscent of a northern wilderness in its insistence, its physicality, and its cool, inscrutable emotions. Throughout the book, nature, linguistically spliced with sex, remains unpredictable, even savage. To surrender to its impulses, it seems, may be to abdicate the comfort and stability of the domestic realm. Although the wild love that exists between the pair is allegedly a monumental force, it remains fixated on physical encounters. In the end, it is no match for the strength of mature love that binds the man to his wife and family back home. The prospect of a lasting relationship between the lovers slides out of the speaker’s life as the book reaches its denouement and “Impossibility is lost…I am no longer an expedition” while love remains “monumentally small, beyond comprehension, an impossible thing to grasp.” It would seem that all our efforts to map, define, describe can’t ensure that we arrive where we desire.

After five years of living, working and writing in the Skeena-Stikine region of northwest BC, Emily McGiffin now finds herself in Toronto pursuing a PhD in Environmental Studies. She hopes to get back up north very soon.


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