Memorials

  • Maleea Acker (Author)
    Air-Proof Green. Pedlar Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Renée Sarojini Saklikar (Author)
    Children of Air India: Un/authorized Exhibits and Interjections. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Karen Connelly (Author)
    Come Cold River. Quattro (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

How do we navigate the world around us? This struggle—in its many varied, nuanced forms—informs three new poetry collections. One collection explores abuse and remembrance, another meditates on the natural world, and a third intricately explores tragedy, both the internal and the communal. Yet, in the end, all three collections attempt to make sense of our place in the world, and our responsibilities to it.

In Air-Proof Green, Acker’s connection to the natural world is apparent through her lush, image-dense verse. We move through geographies, and seasons, and a catalogue of emotional responses, but are always accompanied by her keen observations of landscape and her relationship to it. Acker, as well, is aware of this intrinsic connection to nature; in Blue Mountain Lake Elegy, she says:

A green wall
divides my life. Birds,
fishes, foliage—
things disappear. I can no longer get through.
Sometimes, remembering
is a thirst; I go out on the lake—
when I dip my hand
the losses return.

In other poems, Acker explores animals, from frogs to dogs to birds and their “coo, coo, coo, urgent, hilarious,” and exotic locales as points of departure. Some of her strongest work appears in the section “To the Unstated Theme” where her poems reveal, in riveting detail, the Spanish towns of Aleria and Calle Alcudia:

Sometimes
after the valley of the oranges, having
seen the bees in wait, knowing
all sleep now in the house, having not upset
the thin bowl which is this night spreading way.

The attention to natural detail and the thickly poetic language, while effective in specific poems, did create a sameness in terms of tone and narrative stance; the reader is kept slightly apart from the visceral experience of the narrator. Ultimately, I wanted more access to the interior worlds being explored in this meditative collection. I wanted, as the narrator says in “Moving Pictures, Silent Films,” for the poems to “Pull me in and smoke for us /as interior happiness tips and pulls history free.”

Connelly, alternately, in Come Cold River, explores family politics—including abuse and addiction—as well as marginalized voices: in this case, the sixty-eight women murdered by Robert Pickton. Within the collection, Connelly acknowledges that she had difficulty finding a home for the book; the response to her work was, “Haven’t we all heard these stories before?” This commentary, in and of itself, speaks to the greater purpose of Connelly’s poems in Come Cold River: to explore the invisible histories that we take for granted, that make up the gaps in our personal and collective histories.

Connelly approaches her work as a kind of memoir-poetry, where the poems are narrative-centred often telling violent and tragic stories. This is where, at times, the poetry falls flat, drifting further from verse and closer to prose. Yet she utilizes voice to inhabit these various spaces, from the complex history of Canada to her own recollections of youth. In “The Breakfast Cereal of His Youth,” she addresses her brother, and his desperate addiction:

because it crackles when you cook it
up and suck it in
snap-crackle-pop
the smoke swirls,
the pipe’s so hot
you burn your mouth
(the hotter the higher the faster)

She reinforces the universality of addiction with plain language, offering an almost conversational tone, drawing the reader deeper into the intricacies of this family’s past. This, indeed, is Connelly’s gift: her ability to connect with the reader within each poem, regardless of the subject. In “Swimming Lessons on Vancouver Island,” she takes on the task of exploring Canada’s complicated history with First Nations groups, directly addressing and implicating the country itself in the various injustices:

It is the dead
who teach us how to live,
well or badly, it is the dead
who teach us how to swim,
well or badly, it is the dead
who walk among us
but cannot spell our names.

The longest poem in the collection, the ten-page “Enough,” details the sixty-eight women murdered by Robert Pickton. The poem is haunting, claustrophobic, utilizing the echo and repetition of the women’s names to remind the reader: this is real. This is loss. Throughout, Connelly is able to bring the past to life, providing a remembrance to these fragments of the past, offering importance to these moments that, sadly, we’ve all heard before.

The most experimental in form, “Children of Air India” utilizes structure to reinforce the inspiration behind the poems. Saklikar’s aunt and uncle were passengers on Air India flight 182, which exploded off the coast of Ireland in 1985, and the author inserts herself into the poems via “N” the “niece” and “narrator” looking in to these final moments. Saklikar strives, with this collection, to create elegies for the dead, offering up “exhibits” to memorialize the 392 passengers who lost their lives, including 82 children.

The collection is a collage of sorts, combining fragments, aspects of documentary, archival language, and imagined moments in the lives of the passengers. Saklikar acknowledges the extensive research that went into the writing of the collection, and this research is obvious in the final poems: poems with redacted words, poems with repeated refrains of “82 children under the age of 13” and “another version of this moment exists,” poems that utilize experimental forms to reveal the core truths. “Exhibit (1985): nine, four, ten months” reveals this tension between content and form, and how it creates a dynamic experience for the reader:

Status: bodies not found

(list elegy interruption)

Punctured crackled popped probed embedded bled

Eviscerated

Slashed

de com

Exhibit (1985): fourteen, two months.

This collection demands something more of its reader, a commitment to the narrative and to the reimagined intimacies of the passengers aboard the flight. Saklikar dedicates much of the collection to memorializing the children who perished—hence the refrain, “82 children under the age of 13”—but does offer space and time to a variety of characters, detailing both their deaths and the lives she imagines they lived before the tragedy. Saklikar moves seamlessly between settings and times, ultimately offering up a sequence of poems that honour last moments.

Shush and now, now, now—
We don’t want to wake the girls

my husband’s fingertips—
nipple’s edge, outlined,
one breast, in one hand,
our girls pretending sleep, early so early in that jour just before dawn,

the day before—

Status: bodies unfound.



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