Common Place. Coach House Books
There Is No Escape Out of Time. Insomniac Press
Arguments for Lawn Chairs. Guernica Editions
It is perhaps not surprising that what these three very different collections by young Toronto poets share is an uneasy feeling, a difficult negotiation of the relationship between the body and the landscape, the self and the world. Aaron Kreuter’s and Jacqueline Valencia’s debut collections of poetry, and Sarah Pinder’s celebrated second collection, all engage in and alter the lyric form to try to make space for the self in a landscape that increasingly doesn’t care for individuals, for bodies, for poets, or for publishing.
Kreuter’s Arguments for Lawn Chairs is equal parts ecocritical lyric poetry and careful meditations on Judaism, artistic production, and the cityscape. Kreuter’s collection is marked by a cyclicality, a back-and-forth pull between on the one hand wanting to become a part of the earth, and on the other a desire to burn it all down. This cyclicality is made clear in the coupled poems “With the Grain” and “Against the Grain,” poems that pivot on the fulcrum of this desire to burn it all down, all of us with it. “With” walks past a “well-stocked lumber store” only to become overcome by the environmental devastation signalled by all that wood, dejectedly ending with “I wish oblivion on us all.” But almost as if he decided that “wish” was too real and “oblivion” too severe, the speaker returns in the first line of “Against” with “I dream death on us all.” We are still surrounded by clear-cut forests and coffee table books, but Kreuter’s speaker here decides—maybe for the best—that we should die only in dreams and live another day to at least contemplate ways we can be better to each other and to this place. Later in the collection, the poem “Fan Fiction,” which was included in the 2014 Best Canadian Poetry in English anthology and which the poet describes as his “greatest hit,” exemplifies this concern, expressing the difficult relationship between popular literature—in this case the Harry Potter series—and the politics of community and the environment. The speaker wonders, for example, “What’s the Ministry of Magic’s / position on nuclear proliferation, / on off-shore drilling, on deforestation?” and in the end finds us more like a wizard I won’t name (though he does). The clever use of J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world against the painful image of humanity with only a few horcruxes remaining leaves the reader unsure of how to feel.
Though not about the environment or politics in the same way as Kreuter’s collection, Valencia’s There Is No Escape Out of Time articulates, as the title suggests, some of the same oscillations between hope and dejection. Valencia speaks directly to and about a literary canon that is increasingly irrelevant and more meaningful because of its distance, with diverse poems referencing diverse but still canonical authors like Theodore Roethke, James Joyce, John Milton, and Allen Ginsberg, writers who seem to have very little to offer when we are tempted instead by “All the high of bright touch screens and buttons.” But the book’s strongest poems are the ones that consider family, domestic space, and the individual navigating a city that does not seem to care that she is there. In a poem that accompanies an illustration of Toronto’s cityscape against a ravine, Valencia’s speaker observes this sense of cyclicality, the same push and pull of jaded dejection and youthful hope. First: “This is a loop limbo, or we have made an effect.” Then, right after: “Don’t listen to the guy saying, ‘This is a revolution of the mind.’ // They just pay him to say that.” We may not be sure, even by the end of this collection, if this is loop limbo or if our words, our desires, have effected a change, but Valencia’s poetry decides instead to enjoy the sensuality, the joy, and the humour of that loop regardless.
In Pinder’s Common Place, the lyric takes a dramatically different form than in Valencia’s or Kreuter’s collections, with smaller, unnamed lyrics (and plenty of blank space) forming a fragmentary long poem that brings issues of capital, commodification, and technology in a quiet (but no less violent) collision. The speaker moves deftly from tongue-in-cheek quips about contemporary society, to absurdist advice for the reader, to sensual and romantic moments, revealing that these voices are really not so different as we might think. At times, Pinder’s poetry reels with feminist rage delivered with more exhaustion than vitriol. A poem in the book’s second half begins:
First-person voice and thought
What you propose is to occupy this take
and be taught by me, a type of woman, to become
somewhat more sensitive.
It’s the same sentiment that punctuates much of feminist thought today: the (often unnoticed) emotional labour of caring, of teaching and encouraging care. But rather than retreating behind the exhaustion of this work, the incredulity that this work must continue, Pinder’s speaker observes warningly, “You’ve got no idea where the heat will go / but still want to keep me around.” Later in the collection, in a poem that opens “I had a debt before. / Now, I don’t know,” Pinder’s speaker advises readers whose debts are either metaphorical or painfully, financially real to “put them in the Crown Royal bag, / draw the gold cord and swing it overhead / fast and faster, until it disappears.” The image bursts with youthful exuberance and the difficult knowledge that, for most of us, this is the best option for getting rid of our debts.
These poets share a very Toronto poetic voice, at once youthful enough to feel hopeful and old enough to know better. The poems are thus stuck in a loop limbo, at once believing in the power of reusable water bottles, the songs of our children, or tissue paper dandelions, and knowing (either behind or in spite of those things) that this is all doomed. The poems will leave you feeling absolutely convinced that you’re not sure either.