arts & culture.
REVIEW BY EVELYN C. WHITE
Shortly after I received How She Read by Vancouver artist-educator Chantal Gibson, I discovered In The Wake: On Blackness and Being by York University professor Christina Sharpe. In addition to their searing content, both works include images that speak volumes about the lives of Black women
The cover of Chantal Gibson's superb poetry collection How She Read showcases a photo of her mother, then about age six, seated at her school desk and juxtaposed against a map of the United States. The dedication page of the volume reveals that Gibson's mom died at age 36.
Sharpe's book features a vibrant portrait of her family--a prototype of Black success Readers are stunned to learn, as Sharpe tells it, that everyone in the photo is dead. In doing so, she gives devastating voice to the rote erasure of Black folk throughout the African Diaspora.
In the title poem, Gibson lays the foundation for the prevailing thrust of the collection--a poignant, powerful and provocative recasting of the Canadian narrative that has rendered Blacks invisible for eons "every word she speak be a teeth-sucking act of resistance/ every word she write be a battle cry/ every tap of her pen be the beat of an ancestor's drum "
Taking a page from Aretha Franklin (compare her "Eleanor Rigby" to the original by The Beatles), Gibson reconfigures traditional Canadian primary school books, vocabulary lists and grammar lessons to address the experiences of racialized students In "Faulty Parallelism" she writes, "your MacMillan Grade 4 speller/ a maple key/ a snowflake/ that tiny flake of scalp on your afro pick... the difference between an Indian and a Chinese sunburn "
And this, from "Proper Noun": "The North Star?/ It didn't fall/ / dropped it."
In "Cease n Desist: From the Desk of Viola Desmond," the author revises the storyline about the jailed African Nova Scotian businesswoman whose sunny visage now graces the $10 bill. "Don't flatten me with your flattery," Gibson writes. "... I can reconcile the smile for the cause/ but let's get real: I was not smiling that night. "
Gibson's circular triad of poems "Reciprocal Pronouns" celebrates the sisterhood of Black women with a lovingly clever refrain: "You i Me... we i each Other." A winning collection.
McClelland & Stewart
REVIEW BY KIM FAHNER
When you come to Doyali Islam's heft, you come to a gathering of poems that live on the pages in a very different way in terms of their layout and design. You have to turn the book in your lap, opening it so that the centre spine is the physical dividing mark of top and bottom. The poet asks the reader to trust her, to be alright with being a bit out of sorts when reading, and to walk alongside her on the journey.
Islam uses what she calls "split forms" in heft, a rich body of work divided into her own uniquely invented split and double sonnets, as well as parallel poems. There is a mirroring that serves as a spine for the collection, with words on either side of that line. Get beyond the structural architecture of the work, though, and delve into poems that are strongly fashioned, with images and lines that sparkle.
In "Moose Hunting," a poem set in North Bay, Ontario, Islam writes of a moose that stands in the middle of a field where kids often play sports In "cat and door," the poet describes her cat, Poncho: "all/ of him leapt like lightning returning" Islam moves from these simple focus points of everyday life towards more politically and socially minded poems like the beautiful and haunting "2015, prayer for Charleston," a piece that repeats "in four directions let the body move/ a hand/ a dove" in a sorrowful mantra. Then, in "flare," the poet writes of experiencing a flare up of a chronic illness and the frustration that comes with the pain and exhaustion.
In heft, Islam plays with her own newly created poetic forms, but the cerebral part of her experimentation with those forms doesn't outweigh or obscure the emotional impact of the poems. Doyali Islam has deftly created an impressive collection that sits with you after reading it, leaves you thinking about how we are positioned within the world, within poetic form and within ourselves.
A B DILLON
REVIEW BY KERRY RYAN
Matronalia, the haunting first collection by Calgary poet A.B. Dillon, is a mother's address to her daughter, equal parts apology, life advice and wonky medical case study.
Central to the collection is a recurring image of genetic disease, particular to the women in the speaker's family, an affliction she calls Baltic love. "The females in our family are incapable of loving each other/ with a soft heart./ We can love our sons, though" Physical symptoms include the growth of extra ribs that constrict the heart, lockjaw to prevent the right words from being spoken and turning to stone Onset is the moment a daughter is born. The mother then continues to harden over time, until: "I have to brace myself for holding you. This is part of the/ pathology. Involuntary flinching."
The collection is structured as a series of untitled, interrelated poems They're often prose style, sometimes with a single, striking line positioned mid-page, such as "Be a spear" or "Forgive me" The pieces feel like diary entries following a rough chronology of the daughter growing up From the time when the mother was pulling her daughter's "hair through my/ fingers/ to make French braids/ as if doing calligraphy" to adolescence when the mother "can see you are readying to leave me... it's a long birth for mothers and/ daughters, in waves, in fits... you must leave/ me again and again."
Many of the poems end mid-thought, a raggedness that suggests interruption or the mother's lack of concentration--perhaps another symptom of the speaker's peculiar Baltic love affliction. It's a nice counterpoint to Dillon's spare, tightly controlled style.
The speaker in this collection refuses to conform to modern expectations about motherhood. She doesn't organize play dates or mom's groups Instead, she urges her daughter to be resilient, rejoice in herself and engage with art. These poems are what she can't say out loud to her child: "When you have this disease, you speak in/tongues. The best way I can speak to you is in words on a page."
As a manifesto about a mother's inability to love, it fails; Dillon's beautiful poems are all heart
REVIEW BY KIM FAHNER
Lauren Carter's Following Sea envisions "a sea.[that] is moving in the same direction as the heading of the boat" It's a collection that speaks to both literal and metaphorical journeying Carter has artfully created poems that trace the history and movements of her ancestors, but also includes work that charts her own evolution as a woman in this life.
The poems told from the perspective of Margaret, Carter's great-great-grandmother, conjure the emotions of a woman who didn't really want to leave her home, and who certainly hadn't bargained for brutal Canadian winters Nothing is romanticized here, and the tension between the settlers and the First Nations people of Manitoulin is aptly referred to in the series of poems that make up "Island Clearances," winner of the 2014 Room Poetry Prize. In "Passage (1854)," Carter writes of how Margaret stood "on the beach, the hem/ of her dress wicking the lake." In a later poem, "Swamp Fire (1862)," the poet writes again of Margaret, now standing near a burned house, "its embers soldering/ her leaden skirts" Nothing is simple.
Carter journeyed to Scotland, hiking through the places where her Chisholm ancestors once lived. In "Walking Glen Affric (2016)," she writes of a day spent in rain, the whole glen silvered and haunted She looks for "My kin, the ancestors/ I'd crossed an ocean to see," but finds, instead, cairns of ruined stone, markers for an imagined past.
While the poems travel through time, Carter weaves herself into her family's ancestry. In the later poems within the collection, she speaks of her struggle with infertility. "Moth," "Remains" and "For History" allude to how the poet anchors herself within her matrilineal heritage She gives voice to what it means to not be a mother in a society that so often defines women by these encultured roles There is palpable grief in her personal loss, and then a reluctant acceptance, too, in "Spring "
Following Sea is a richly woven tribute to one woman's search for self within the fabric of history and is a beautifully fashioned collection of poems.