The Poetry of Revolution: Stephen Collis’s To the Barricades

Stephen Collis. To The Barricades.
Stephen Collis. To The Barricades. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2013.
~Reviewed by Andrew Vaisius
Stephen Collis writes and references events across years and over oceans in his latest and third publication, To the Barricades. From Brigette DePape’s gutsy transgression as a page in the Senate when she held up a STOP HARPER sign to Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading the People painting (Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge’s wonderful re-creation photo, Liberty Lost/G20, Toronto, graces the cover of this book) Collis makes a point of gathering raw material for his poetry without discriminating between street, university, historic, or pop culture. From his sources, he drops phrases as hints, he points fingers, and he testifies: “How does the predator / become the trustee?”; “every cop / that ever stopped / a kid with a / backpack and / brown skin”; “companies mine death / to deliver largesse.” Collis translates the Latino American rallying chant “Un pueblo unido jemas sera vencido” into “the // city indicted / will never be / united,” updating the relevancy so that we can better make sense of our own time and space. Other poems also linger on resistance and revolution:

A flash mob is
one thing the way
the mountains shoulder
their loads of snows
is another…
to see what the
deer see is
a revolution of
another kind.

Barricades are a type of resistance and, depending on who’s throwing them up, an act of creativity as well as control. Collis uses brush-by, glint, examination-in-perspective, and roundabout reconnaissance to measure our times. He is not interested in road repair. When he mentions the “seajet years,” who cannot conjure up an image of cocky Stockwell Day dismounting on the beach for his photo op? Collis understands that we bring our own interpretations with us wherever we go, so it isn’t surprising that he half excuses his political poetry by writing, “If this weren’t a poem / I would want to / talk of protests of / marches.” Yet we know it is a poem, and this admission does not make Collis’s commitment to steely observation any less potent. One might say he is defining the bounds of his poetry.

Collis moves freely among our hurts, idiocies, blind spots, and burdensome hubris, as well as our solidarity, empathy, and generosity. Collis is not backroom, but he remains unelected and continues to be the conduit of the progressive forces of our times through his writing. This may not be poetry to throw a revolution to, but I would never minimize its effect on open, intelligent readers:

while reading this poem still won’t be the same
as storming a bank or a parliament
you may yet be reading this poem
to a group of people with whom you will presently
be storming a bank or parliament.

Unafraid of the truth and unafraid to opine on the effect of truth, Collis has emerged as one of Canada’s finest writers. Like climate change and tar sands, like the decimation of honey bees with Neonicotinoid, like the essence of Edward Snowden’s revelations, we ignore Collis’s words at our own peril.


Andrew Vaisius is a poet and poetry reviewer in Winkler, Manitoba. He has a chapbook (Domestic/Imported) out soon designed by Robert Pasternak.


Not interested in road repair? Try Arc‘s poetry.


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