Have you ever wondered what reconciliation sounds like? The title poem of Janet Rogers’ fifth poetry collection, Totem Poles & Railroads, powerfully declares “I AM NOT NEXT” from the centre of the page. This bold line—an answer to the question raised on poster boards at vigils and protests on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls—combines the book’s two thrusts: to reject victim narratives and to make sound. Totem Poles & Railroads is an incisive critique of the overly-simplistic and bureaucratic state of reconciliation, certain forms of activism, and the mainstream presentation of history in Canada.
Ranging over 400 pages, the incumbent Parliamentary Poet Laureate’s Canticles I (MMXVI) is a torrent of erudition. Refreshingly, it also happens to contain much good poetry. Conceived as “a lyric styled epic,” Clarke roams the valley of history’s losers and sheaths dry bones with breath. Calling History (capitalized) a “demonic Bible” in his opening poem “Apologia” Clarke’s work can be best understood as an uninhibited attempt to provincialize the Eurocentricity of our regnant narratives.
“Family is a crawlspace,” says the speaker of the poem “Debtless,” “storing waterlogged paperbacks, / a cheap bottle of brandy in a filing cabinet” (86). These lines—metaphorically rich and balanced with detail and ambiguity—are representative of Adèle Barclay’s assured debut, If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You. There is suggestive power with “crawlspace;” a crawlspace is a dark space—what does that darkness portend? “Paperbacks” hint at family stories, but check out that adjective, “waterlogged.” The word contributes to a captivating rhythm, in which the “-logged” part functions sonically like a gulp by forcing a slight pause before moving on. Things do not become waterlogged on their own—waterlogging occurs by accident or natural disaster. These connotations arise in part from following the “show, don’t tell” maxim; they brilliantly suggest a narrative not constricted by telling, but also one that goes beyond showing, allowing room for a reader’s own experiences. Although the occasional poem feels a bit too much like a jumble of images and ideas, again and again, Barclay is able to find the right words and put them in the right order.
How to Draw a Rhinoceros, the debut poetry collection from short fiction writer Kate Sutherland, is a detailed survey of a disappearing giant. Borrowing lines from paintings, scientific texts, newspapers, and handbills, Sutherland sketches out her object: the rhinoceros, pachyderm of legend, prize of carnivals and trophy cases. In a marriage of found texts and wry fancies, How to Draw a Rhinoceros assembles an interrupted past to illuminate an imperiled present.
Lori Cayer’s smart new book, Dopamine Blunder, jumps and skitters across a cornucopia of poems in order to chase down, capture, and interrogate the one elusive rascal of the North American capitalist dream: happiness. Touching on the fruits of research from quantum mechanics to sociology and everything between, she begins in “Page Not Found” with “how do you know if you’re happy / if you’re not,” and continues her quest through found and erasure poems, lyrical poems, anagrams, and poems that play and sing with syntax and punctuation. Interspersed throughout Dopamine Blunder, Cayer’s third book of poetry, are indexes and formulae of happiness and wellbeing, reminiscent of Nikki Reimer’s lists of household expenses in DOWNVERSE.
“[Typefaces] are used to enable the mind to dance with the body, the body with the mind, the mind with other minds, by making music you can see but cannot hear.”
-Robert Bringhurst, Palatino: The Natural History of a Typeface
Sue MacLeod’s poems in Mood Swing, with Pear, her third book of poetry, dance down and across the page. In turns playful and deadly serious, tackling topics ranging from cancer to carrying a heavy flowerpot, MacLeod often stretches out lines and phrases to create spaces for the reader to pause and consider, to fill in and imagine, to breathe. Nine of the poems are found poems — or “compiled poems” — as she calls them in the notes, and just as many are ekphrastic in some manner, riffing off artwork, photos, or lines from literature. MacLeod writes the domestic and mundane the way painters approach scenes like a woman in a bathtub or a still life of a fruit bowl, as repeated attempts to “get it right”:
“For there is hope for a tree, when it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and its shoots will not fail. Though its roots grow old in the ground and its stump dies in the dry soil, at the scent of water it will flourish and put forth sprigs like a plant.” (Job 14:7)
Alexandra Oliver’s deeply conventional poems in Let the Empire Down report on social arrangements: family, home, neighbourhoods, work, and fitting (comfortably or otherwise) into those environments. The mode is formal, and subjects, for the most part, mundane—reading to schoolchildren, having a manicure, taking a bus or train, receiving medical test results – except for the ten poems of the book’s closing sequence, “Movies,” which recount and reframe a handful of movies by Fellini and others.
Heighton opens his sixth collection with “The Last Sturgeon,” where a man “always walked / a little above his life / not knowing it was / his life, while it waned / from walking-coma / to coma,” introducing a theme of emotional disconnection that runs throughout The Waking Comes Late. In the titular poem, a man laments his knowledge of plant life has come too late to share with his mother, and in “All Rivers Arrive,” a woman weeps over her dying mother, unable to express what she wishes she had while the mother was coherent, before cancer took control. And in two early poems about having a crushed larynx, the speaker considers the things he should have said before his power of speech was imperilled: “I meant to tell you, I / thought I told you / I couldn’t / quite.” In these excellent poems, Heighton shows how technical mastery can merge with acutely relevant subject matter to great effect. In fact, when it comes to language, Heighton is a remarkably efficient poet: I rarely find, as I often do when reading Canadian poetry, myself mentally editing as I go along. Words here are too precious to be left out of place, whether his own or those of others.