With Eyes Open: Nancy Holmes’s The Flicker Tree: Okanagan Poems

The first two sections of The Flicker Tree—“Living Beings: Okanagan Plants and Animals” and “This Place Here: Okanagan Places and People”—announce the book’s deeply felt locality. In addition, though plant and animal, people and place, blur in the poems, their initial categorical separation shows that Holmes does not take such connections for granted. Rather, her speakers reveal their efforts to make nature “open up, invite [them] into / its kitchen” (“Arrow-Leaved Balsamroot”). No one is simply witness; everyone is actor too: culpable, angry, unsure. In “Magpie” the speaker says, “the magpie’s / leading me down the trail / to where the lake is lit up / so spiritually.” She turns, however, only to see “another magpie / dive-bombing my dog’s head.” The speaker has “been led astray”—by the birds, yes, but more so by her lyrical mind. Despite foregoing the “fields…pruned into harps / and forks” in order to peer “in wild spots” (“Song and Sustenance”), the Romantic impulse to connect self to nature persists. In “Sagebrush Mariposa Lily” the speaker’s visceral response to the plant is to “feel my own flesh / unpeel from the stem of my bone, / become petalled, / muscle and skin / thinly scalpeled open, purple.” This impulse is effectively interrogated throughout the book, with only rare uses of overt anthropomorphism. Holmes excels at a damning playfulness; lines such as “My shade is certified organic” (“Toads Are Us”) point at our token environmentalism amidst greater industrial destruction. For though Holmes, like the Romantics, may see the aesthetic value in ruin—“the woods are grazed and thin, / wrecked with beautiful litter”(“Earth Star”)—she also joins in their lament for a damaged world.

Ecological crisis permeates the book; even the first section, “Living Beings,” is populated with the dying: an owl smashes against a windowpane, friends die, mushrooms are uprooted. While mushroom picking, the speaker strolls through the woods, delighting in names: “the shaggy manes, the slippery jacks, orange / witches’ butter, tiplers’ bane”(“Earth Star”). But the third section,“Woodhaven: A Crisis of Place,” no longer allows for the respite of the stroll: here crisis is immediate, urgent, and it lives in the now, embodied in Holmes’s energetic formal play. Language jostles through long prose lines and into disjointed passages; nouns are cut out of phrases like words caught in the throat. This section revels in excess, in “the bone-sewn, / name-spattered, leaf smothered” (“Braiding”). Here, Holmes returns to the specificity of names only to find them problematized, “unhooked from their Nsyilxcen names,” the “ghost words” (“Guide’s Book”). The speaker in “Joan Burbidge: A Guide” pleads: “slow me into // the where / of my ears and feet // take me in / to this place step / by planting step, / with crisis clear // with eyes open.” And this is what we ask of The Flicker Tree, to take us, culpable, angry, unsure, into this place that Holmes knows so well, step by planting step.


Lise Gaston’s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in journals across Canada, most recently The Fiddlehead and Matrix Magazine. She lives in Montreal.


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