The Dynamics of Readerly Engagement in Three Poetic Texts
- Elana Wolff (Author)
Implicate Me: Short Essays on Reading Contemporary Poems. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Nicole Brossard (Author) and Louise H. Forsyth (Editor)
Mobility of Light: The Poetry of Nicole Brossard. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Heather Milne
This review brings together three diverse texts: an edited collection of Nicole Brossard’s poetry spanning four decades, a compilation of Elana Wolff’s close readings of poems, and a recent volume of poetry by Margaret Christakos. What unites these books is their focus on poetry’s demand for dynamic readerly engagement and attentiveness to the vitality of poetic language.
In Mobility of Light, editor Louise H. Forsyth compiles a comprehensive selection of Brossard’s work from the 1960s to the present, a daunting task given Brossard’s prolific output. Mobility of Light is framed by an informative introduction by Forsyth and an afterword by Brossard that offers insight into her creative process. For Brossard, this volume reflects her “biosemiology,” and draws attention to how her engagements with poetic language traverse “personal and collective space”; Brossard’s writing is remarkable in its simultaneous attentiveness to the introspective dimensions of poetry and the political dimensions of language, translation, sexuality and gender. Each poem is printed in French with its English translation on the facing page, allowing the reader to move between languages, and as Forsyth says, to take advantage of the opportunity to “imagine and create” that translation offers, or to ponder, as Brossard suggests in Journal intime (Intimate Journal), “the other [she] might be if [she] thought in English.” Forsyth has done much of the translation herself, an impressive feat given the complexity of Brossard’s language play. The poetry is arranged chronologically, allowing the reader to trace the evolution of her writing. Unfortunately, readers are not provided with the original publication information for each poem, making it difficult to trace the work back to its original publication context(s). Overall, however, Mobility of Light serves as an excellent introduction to Brossard’s work.
Elana Wolff’s Implicate Me is a compilation of newspaper columns that originally appeared in the Scarborough Arts Council newspaper between 2002 and 2007. In each of these short essays, Wolff provides her readers with a poem and a short analysis that demonstrates readerly engagement through the examination of features such as metaphor, cadence, language, and rhythm. Wolff’s close readings offer a useful entry point but often fail to move beyond the surface; more context and greater depth of engagement would have strengthened her close readings considerably. The collection suffers from a lack of diversity; all of the poets included in the book are based in the GTA and with a few exceptions (notably, Wolff includes a poem by Margaret Christakos and a compelling close reading of that poem) most are lyric poets. Wolff makes some troubling generalizations about poetry, claiming that “reverence for and devotion to family and forebears” is “at the source and centre” of poetry and that poetry can contain “the chaos of everyday living.” Such generalizations do not account for poetry’s diverse aims.
Far more complex in its engagement with what poetry can achieve (and also what it fails to achieve) is Margaret Christakos’ eighth collection of poems, Welling. In all of her writing, Christakos explores the affective chaos of everyday living, not by containing it but by allowing it to proliferate. Welling marks a textual return to Sudbury, the site of Christakos’ childhood and adolescence. These poems engage with temporality, memory, presence and absence, as the poet revisits her past while also foregrounding her present life in Toronto, her role as a parent of three children, and her conscious engagement with lyric voice. Welling is more closely aligned with lyric poetry than some of her other recent collections but rather than simply writing lyric poems, Christakos develops poems that invoke and interrogate lyric voice and poetic language. “The Problem of Confessionality” draws attention to the limitations of poetic expression: “Nobody sings what / these birds do. Poetry / tries and maybe cooperates / briefly (at a sort of brink) – desiring as we / do “pure sound” / separable from linguistic / code. I don’t know about / this. I don’t think any of / us, even the ‘best’ poets / among us, do more than signal a portal that would / open on a room full of / squirming words.” In “Gulls,” “every paragraph disembarks, / nearly dies” like a girl who is nearly killed disembarking a streetcar. “That’s how paragraphs go, on the balls of their pink feet directly / into traffic.” Christakos is attuned to the scene and process of writing, and to the expectations writers and readers bring to poetic language. Welling is somewhat more accessible than her other collections, and perhaps with this text, Christakos will find the wider audience her work deserves.
- Recollections by Alexander Forbes
Books reviewed: Hogg: The Poems and Drawings by Barry Callaghan and Michael Bullock: Selected Works 1936-1996 by Peter Loeffler and Jack Steward
- Between Exposures by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: Cinquefoil: New Work from Five Ottawa Poets by Mark Frutkin, Exposed by Catherine Hunter, and Between Lovers by Sheri-D Wilson
- Poems of Witness by Hilary Clark
Books reviewed: Momentary Dark: New Poems by Margaret Avison, Inventory by Dionne Brand, and Before the First Word: The Poetry of Lorna Crozier by Catherine Hunter
- The Questions Posed to Life by Death, A Canon for Three Voices by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: Things that Keep and Do Not Change by Susan Musgrave, What the Living Won't Let Go by Lorna Crozier, and Kaddish for My Father: New and Selected Poems 1970-1999 by Libby Scheier
- The Language Around You by Adam Dickinson
Books reviewed: Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation by Tim Bowling, The Matrix Interviews: Moosehead Anthology #9 by R. E. N. Allen and Angela Carr, and Vis à Vis: Fieldnotes on Poetry & Wilderness by Don McKay
MLA: Milne, Heather. The Dynamics of Readerly Engagement in Three Poetic Texts. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #208 (Spring 2011), Prison Writing. (pg. 157 - 158)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.