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Cover of issue #220

Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

The Spiritual Subject

  • Barbara Colebrook Peace (Author)
    Duet for Wings and Earth. Sono Nis Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Kelly Parson (Author)
    I Will Ask for Birds. Sono Nis Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Jacob Scheier (Author)
    More to Keep Us Warm. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Christopher Patton (Author)
    Ox. Véhicule Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Kim Goldberg (Author)
    Riding Backwards on Dragon: A Poet's Journey Through Liuhebafa. Leaf Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Amanda Lim

Despite the very different aesthetic choices and voices of these five poets, certain themes connect them.  Spirituality, for instance, is a central theme, whether explicitly in Peace’s multiple-perspective version of the Christ story or in Patton’s contemplation of the relationship between ecological health, personal fulfillment, and community-building.  Spirituality goes beyond religious affiliation and instead is presented as part of the interconnections and tensions involved in constructing individual and collective subjectivities. 

Scheier’s Governor General’s Award-winning More To Keep Us Warm showcases his witty and self-reflexive handling of themes such as war, death, love, and religion. “I’m not here for sushi,” for instance, gives an unglorified but humorous portrait of heartbreak, and “On Women” combines solipsistic hurt, irony, and self-deprecation.  Scheier’s deft shifts in tone complicate what could easily turn into banal lyrical confessions but which, here, become provocative and ethical conundrums that force the reader to reevaluate certain assumptions—evident in the witty but disturbing “Apollo,” the melancholy reflections upon citizenship in “Red Diaspora,” and the astute political critiques in “Dear Office of Homeland Security.”  A noticeable poem is “Kaddish for 1956,” in which he issues a challenge to the literary scene and the cultural values it engenders, reminding us that effective and relevant poetry exists in a multitude of forms, and that poetry does not necessarily have to be formally challenging in order to question normative conventions.  Although the poem’s tone resembles a rant, it is rather refreshing to encounter a poem that unabashedly addresses the very issues at the centre of the Canadian literary scene.

Barbara Colebrook Peace’s Duet for Wings and Earth, mostly in the form of “songs,” might appeal to religious readers first because it focuses entirely on the birth of Christ and the accompanying Biblical narratives.  While knowledge of these stories would be beneficial, Peace’s unique retellings from a variety of perspectives (human and animal) invite different readings, and prior knowledge is not required to appreciate her humour and fresh lyricism.  For instance, “Song of the Magi” lends intimacy and colour to the scene by including the magis’ argument about the correct star that will lead to them to the infant Jesus.  Similarly, “Song of the Donkey” and “Song of the Sheep” are vignettes told from the viewpoints of a donkey who wishes to please Jesus and of Dolly the cloned sheep.  Thus, Peace connects nature and the supernatural, balancing contemplation with levity, in suggesting the multiple ways in which humans seek guidance and connection. However, the unique humour of her poems also has the effect of possibly detracting from the collection as a whole.  “Song of the Donkey,” for example, elicits a laugh but is almost too close to parody, jarring with the earnestness of poems like “Song of God,” so that the collection seems of two minds.  On the other hand, perhaps this is in fact part of Peace’s point: that our collective reasoning has limited our perspective so much that we fail to acknowledge the complex, and frequently contradictory, positions that inform our thinking.

Kelly Parsons’s I Will Ask For Birds is a standout collection, mixing a variety of genres and forms.  Some of Parsons’s meditations on spirituality are reminiscent of Peace’s, such as her series of poems about different guardian angels, the angels of first flight, wakening, and sleep.  Not surprisingly, Parsons’s acknowledgements indicate her conversations with Peace.  However, Parsons’s reflections on spirituality are not limited to Christian figures but include influences from eastern religions.  She frequently infuses what could be clichéd subject matters with innovative observations and surprising turns of phrase.  “Monks at the table” overturns expectations about cultural differences and suggests some of the social effects of globalization; “Original Face” asks ontological questions that challenge simple binaries between “nature” and “culture”; “I shall wear pomegranate” might be read as a feminist revision of conventionally androcentric myths of origin; and the longer poem “Songs from the Night Sky” is a moving elegy about the destruction of the natural environment.  Parsons’s poetry encourages openness and possibility, in language, spirituality, and relationships.  “At the liquor store, in search of poetry” demonstrates this ongoing search and suggests that questions both poetic and philosophical may be found in visiting the most ordinary of places and examining our everyday practices.

Christopher Patton’s Ox has an ecological emphasis that demonstrates the importance of acknowledging the multiple, ethical connections between the natural environment and human society.  Through unique examinations of the flora and fauna that inhabit the spaces of daily interaction, he illustrates the multiple narratives that intersect through time and across lives.  The poems, whose titles frequently reference these flora and fauna—such as “Red Maple,” “Weeping Willow,” and “Bird Seed”—are finely-wrought paintings that are nuanced observations of both elemental nature and human nature.  One of Patton’s strengths is his skillful handling of language, whether through his tactile and sensuous imagery, his strong verbs, or his attuned ear to rhythm.  Patton often uses the dash, like Emily Dickinson, to deliberately fragment meaning and examine the relationship between poet, observer, landscape, and word, seen in poems such as “Leaf Bee” and the concluding, long poem “Weed Flower Mind.”  His insightful connections between individual human life and communal ecology are shown in his depiction of trees as both witnesses to and participants in human settlement and history in poems like “Red Maple,” “White Pine,” and “Vine Maple”; his reflections on the pastoral as genre, aesthetic, and problematic romanticization in “Underwood”; and the balance of life and death, human and animal, in the bee activity of “Poisoned.”

Kim Goldberg’s Ride Backwards on Dragon: A Poet’s Journey Through Liuhebafa stems from her decade-long study of Liuhebafa, an ancient form of Taoist internal martial art and philosophy.  This unique book consists of sixty-six poems, each one devoted to one of the sixty-six movements of Liuhebafa, and they are divided into two main sections, “External Transformation” and “Internal Transformation.”  Together, these poems demonstrate the inextricable connections between physical and psychological development and stress the importance of both balance and self-reflection in one’s life.  Given the current popular interest in other Eastern-derived disciplines such as yoga, Goldberg’s collection reminds us of the numerous practices available to people interested in exploring the connections amongst body, mind, and spirit.  The poems deal with multiple issues, including the progression of time, mortality, and an exploration of wandering as both a personal journey and an ethical position of openness and self-discovery.  Through wry, often hilarious, observations about her own practices and life journey, and the actions of others, Goldberg emphasizes the necessity of constant questioning and re-evaluation, whether in her funny contemplation of stillness in “Geese flying in pairs” or her reading of disjointed dreams in “Heavenly Lord points at star.”

In their own ways, the emphasis of these books on interconnectivity suggest that spirituality is but one avenue through which to pursue an ethical journey that involves responsibility to the well-being of the self, the community, and the natural world. Research for these three things is central if we are to approach contemporary questions of existence and relationships.

 

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MLA: Lim, Amanda. The Spiritual Subject. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Dec. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 185 - 187)

***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.

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