Under Our Own Threat

  • Fiona Tinwei Lam
    Odes & Laments. Caitlin Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sunny Chan

Promotional blurbs about Fiona Tinwei Lam’s Odes & Laments often describe it as an inquiry into what it means to live “in an environment under threat” or “a world under threat.” But threat of what? Sometimes, the threat is the passage of time, and all the changes time brings: how health degenerates as buildings do, how parents grow old and die, how even objects like ceremonial plates once held in lofty regard are eventually transformed into ordinary junk in the back of a cupboard. Other times, the threat is global violence. There are references to the Cold War, to present-day nuclear threats, to children held as prisoners of war in “Holding Centre, Al-Najaf” (a reference to the 2004 World Press Photo of the Year taken by Jean-Marc Bouju). And sometimes the threat is climate change, which is in itself a kind of global violence. There are images of melting ice caps and rising sea levels in “Any Time from Now,” and a horrifically detailed poem titled “Sea Star” describes how sea stars around the world are dying of a widespread disease exacerbated by rising ocean temperatures.

While she writes many odes to common objects in the tradition of Pablo Neruda, Lam also continually returns to another type of poetry. Visual poems, some of them concrete poems, including poems that were later integrated into video poems she has previously exhibited in collaboration with other artists, are her preferred mode when talking about plastic. The motif of plastic resurfaces throughout the book, standing for over abundance and over consumption, for the lasting physical effect of humans on this planet. In “Ocean,” the word “plastic” is scattered into pieces and letters of varying font shapes and sizes, to evoke the millions of tons of plastics that we now know are breaking up in the ocean. In “Consumery,” the words are arranged into the shape of a jug and point out the irony of labels like “free range / wrapped in plastic” and “fair trade / organic / all natural […] wrapped in plastic.” The concreteness of these poems foregrounds how poetry makes words plastic, in the sense of malleable. The world is plastic, changeable. But the world is also plastic, cling-filmed over with what we have done to it.

Like Odes & Laments, Alessandra Naccarato’s Re-Origin of Species mediates how we are part of nature and what we are doing to it. Recurring themes throughout the collection include cultures of motherhood and womanhood across generations, and how different they are from the kinds of relationships that the speaker has with fathers. Mothers’ bodies come to be associated with the land, and vice versa: “[w]e want to be forgiven, / by our mothers and the land; re-colonizer kids.” Honeybees, a famously matriarchal species, come to stand in for all animals that have been forced to adapt to living in urban landscapes, as well as for the effects of the corporatization of big agriculture and genetically modified monocropping.

Despite lamenting how humans have imperiled the natural world through our actions, Re-Origin of Species does not romanticize nature as an idyllic thing. It is powerful and just as capable of causing pain and death, but it still feels like there is a qualitative difference. In “One Hundred Ways to Die in Yellowstone,” an alphabetical listing of causes of death in Yellowstone National Park, Naccarato juxtaposes “Endangered species (attack by)” and “Endangered species (sale of, resulting in GSW, see: Firearms),” one immediately after the other. Wild animals can attack and kill, but they can also be endangered, likely by habitat loss and human activity. Whereas animals kill directly, often while defending themselves or their territory,  human actions here exploit other species with lethal instruments. These differences are heightened in “It Could Be a Virus,” which compiles the many ways someone could get ill—a mixture of natural causes, unfortunate accidents, and preventable human cruelty. This poem ends with, “[i]t could be pollution, or loneliness. / Or maybe bacteria. It could be all your fault.” It asks us to contend with how our earth’s environment can be hostile, but we are not exactly making it better for ourselves with our actions, either.

*Erratum: In the originally published version of this review, the line “Visual poems, some of them concrete poems, including poems that were later integrated into video poems she has previously exhibited…” appears as “Visual poems, some of them concrete poems and some of them excerpted from video poems that she previously exhibited…” The concrete poems “Plasticnic”, “Ocean” and “Roll” actually preceded the video poems in which they were later integrated, so are not “excerpted” from the video.



This review “Under Our Own Threat” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Aug. 2020. Web.

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