A Sense of Place

Reviewed by Dani Spinosa

In the time that I have been reviewing poetry collections, I have discovered that some of the best reviews I have read—and that I have written—are reviews that put two books into conversation rather than opposition. This is most interesting and most effective if, at first, those two books don’t seem to have much in common. When I was offered the opportunity to review these two radically different debut collections—Natasha Ramoutar’s Bittersweet (2020) and Zane Koss’s Harbour Grids (2022)—I was a bit worried about how they might work together. Koss’ work is sparse, minimalist, visual; Ramoutar’s is varied, emotional, lyric. But reading both works at the same time has ultimately pulled out threads from these two excellent collections that have made me appreciate each in ways I might not have otherwise. I am grateful to have read them side by side.


In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I know Koss primarily as a scholar. Our paths have crossed a few times at conferences and I have been impressed by the politics, the rigour, and the quality of his scholarly work. I am sometimes worried about poetry by the poet-scholar; and, make no mistake, Harbour Grids is the kind of decidedly intellectual pursuit we might expect from such a figure. But actually, I was surprised by the lack of scholarly, contextual clues—introduction, afterword, appendices—in this collection. On first read-through, I wanted an essay, manifesto, or poetics statement to help my reading mind make sense of these visual poems where a grid of ses on each page creates a structure that holds words, phrases, and poetic lines by their own ses. But I’ve come to really appreciate Koss’s willingness to let the poems speak for themselves, making their statements about selfhood and space, political experiences of the land, and minding of the US’s colonial history.


Ramoutar, on the other hand, I don’t believe I’ve ever met in person, but I have long been following her career as a creative writer and organizer supporting the literary community in the Greater Toronto Area. Bittersweet is now two years old. I believe that the collection did not get the critical attention it deserved, and I think it’s also worthwhile to note that Ramoutar has continued to make big moves in the industry since its publication. Her continued work has enriched my reading of this collection; Bittersweet is a collection by a poet clearly grounded in her writing community, and that shows in the careful, thoughtful, and evocative poetry throughout.


While these two collections are quite different formally, both collections, at their cores, are grappling with a sense of place and space. Significantly, both are also clearly contending—in thoughtful, unique, and interesting ways—with how we might account for the multiplicities and intricacies of the individual when faced with the sometimes static, sometimes limiting ways we historicize and map land, place, and especially home. Koss’ grids, for example, barely hold their words and lines; the s that binds them together often feels inadequate, like it can barely contain the thoughts therein. Harbour Grids ends, for example, with the lasting question of whether it is possible for the individual to “rest / in the seams / of this place” (137). Ramoutar’s work, similarly, juxtaposes places, maps, streets, and buildings against self and story. After reading the collection, I’m left with the poignant image that ends “Cartography 1,” a delightful little prose poem that appears quite early in the collection. At the end of this poem, Ramoutar writes, “I witnessed the origin point: fields of cane standing tall like soldiers on patrol. But cane is raw; just long stalks, unbridled and wild and free” (2). In the image of the cane field (and several other gorgeous images throughout the collection) the revisited and longed-for homeland of Guyana haunts the poems, expressing some of the rich and varied relationship to place that is necessary to the diasporic experience.


And while this is a book that is, at its heart, set in and written from and thinking about east-end Toronto and Scarborough—the places mentioned range from Kennedy Station and Bluffers Park to the Danforth Music Hall and Echo Beach—the collection still persistently reminds the reader of the incongruity of the grid of the streets and stations and map locations against the individual who walks them; in “Meadowvale,” Ramoutar writes, “These streets / are yours” (29). Koss’ work is also quintessentially New York, though this is perhaps not the Brooklyn we are used to seeing in contemporary poetry. Instead, Koss questions “what histories this surface screens / asphalt smooth” (80), and his lively Spanish, which twists and turns throughout the poems, always ends up meeting the hard lines of “immigration and customs enforcement” (104). These collections work in two completely different forms toward a similar purpose: destabilizing the larger structures of history and state to ensure that they don’t sweep away the individual and their stories. To that end, they are both quite effective and have left lasting impressions on me.


Language, in both collections, becomes a guiding principle rather than a recording method. Bittersweet boasts a grandmother who can “neither read nor write” but “always read us like open books” (4). The varied storytelling throughout this poem resists a colonial, static way of writing the self and its relationship to place and space. It’s a way, for Ramoutar, of refusing the dominating “white noise” of colonialism and especially colonial language that always threatens to “drown[] . . . out” the vibrancy of selfhood, memory, and story (22). In Koss’ work, the “subway stations [sic] tremor” is an “enclosing noise” interrupting the self, the land, the storied histories of the place, its colonial legacies and vibrant multiculturalism always tied together (132-33).


Ultimately, these voices are both fresh and fierce. These collections are exciting. Looking at them sitting next to each other on the table before me, I am so happy to have been introduced to both. As the full-length debuts for both poets, these two collections are sure signs of good things to come from these individuals and from contemporary poetry moving forward. These were pleasures to read!

This review “A Sense of Place” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 9 Nov. 2022. Web.

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