The end is as good a place to start as the beginning; “A gift no NDN should waste.” This final thought left on the page by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson leaves me with one last ironic and fist-clenching observation about Indigenous sovereignty. Through “satire and sarcasm,” eloquence, and a strong Anishinaaabe lens, her “write what you know” storytelling philosophy is full of humour, truth, beauty, and love – and is always political. Decolonizing moments live within every song and story found in This Accident of Being Lost.
In his previous collections, Kevin Connolly didn’t deny his reliance on found text—he lifted, glossed, and annotated both direct borrowings and inspirations. The more comprehensive recycling that structures Xiphoid Process may indicate the growing influence of conceptual writing and increased use of found text across swaths of contemporary poetry. Connolly’s approach to copying, however, is less radical than recent works like Ken Babstock’s On Malice and Moez Surani’s Operations. Rather, it is a snarkier – yet more formally conservative – poet taking aim at past versions of himself by using his own work as found text.
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.
Michael Crummey’s fifth collection, Little Dogs, provides an astute mid-career sampling from a poet-storyteller skilled at embracing all aspects of the Labradorean experience through the eyes of adolescents, middle-agers and elders. The book proceeds chronologically with generous helpings from each of the author’s first four collections, ending with twenty-three new poems. Elegies, persona pieces, list poems, bird portraits, male insecurity lyrics, deathbed vigils and excursions into homebrew inebriation keep this 96-poem whopper steaming down the track.
At the turn of the tenth century, Sei Shōnagon, lady-in-waiting to the Japanese Empress, wrote her Pillow Book by candlelight. A fragmented collection of lists, anecdotes, and descriptions of daily life in court, she kept it in a drawer inside her pillow of polished bamboo. Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book is a modern riff on Shōnagon’s work: lists, descriptions of dreams, scenes from her life, and bits of research on sleep and the history of pillows together form a funny, intimate and thoughtful meditation on insomnia.
In a season of debuts, Elise Partridge’s The Exiles’ Gallery builds like a grand finale. It is her third and final book, the last we will ever receive from this maestro of the finely-tuned image. We may never understand how Partridge’s quiet economy can also be dangerously unsettling. In these poems there is a voice sure of its own pitch, telling us of life’s missed chances and the griefs which careen out of our control. It’s like being taken to a cliff’s edge by a guide who calmly elucidates its potential terrors.
Karen Solie’s fourth collection unsettles and exposes the false comforts of stasis. That these are poems of change and travel is evident from their titles alone—“Rental Car,” “Via”—but mobility is temporally as well as spatially contingent. Poems offer transitions in and out of the familiar, whether on foot or through “Google Earth’s invisible pervert.” Distance can exacerbate difference, or occlude it. Thus while the book is thematically tight, it is not preciously so. Invasions become forms of extreme locality, questions of who or what belongs: bedbugs, gentrification, “the seeds of Walmart / sprouting in the demographic.” If “We are all locals now” then no one is. Named places, like “Sault Ste. Marie,” act not only as destinations, but also as sites of constant movement, conceptual as well as physical border towns, their alien-ness exaggerated by speakers always just passing through.
In the 1990s, the pragmatist philosopher Richard Shusterman proposed an account of art-making and the reception of art as a function of our experiences. His was a more socially-informed inquiry than that of post-structuralism, which posited a constant flux of texts that remains open to changing language contexts or the interplay between a text and other texts. Shusterman theorized against such fragmentation, arguing that aesthetic unity could be a part of our experience of the aesthetic and offering a potent critique of ironic, distanced contemplation and conceptualist formal experimentation and play (often features of post-modern and post-structuralist aesthetics) in favour of art that encompasses social conditions, real life experiences and the emotive appeal of ordinary life.
If, as the racially, physically and sexually-diverse figurants (at once villagers, stagehands, chorus, missives, loose Ohrwurms) in Erìn Moure’s Kapusta claim, “[i]t’s monuments that let us forget the dead,” this poem/play/cabaret investigates the question, what lets us remember?
Reminiscent of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in the book’s premise to return and explore not just the atrocity of war, but also the silence surrounding it—in Moure’s case, the silence of her mother—Kapusta drops a mute sock monkey named Malenka Dotchka or “little daughter” between family and history to open up new possibilities for language. Yes, the sock monkey speaks, but through whom or what is what matters—posing: Where can the voice be placed? How can it be impactful?