Agency & Self-reflexivity

Reviewed by Shazia Hafiz Ramji

Grappling with loss requires reflection—an engagement with the past to prepare for the future. The three books under review are revisitations that use self-referential strategies to draw the reader into discourse. to acknowledge relational subjectivities, and to reinvigorate that which has been lost.

Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now is Daphne Marlatt’s latest book of poetry. Marlatt re-envisions Vancouver to understand the changes that have shaped the city since the 70s, when she published Vancouver Poems.

Liquidities is divided into three parts. Part one comprises “Vancouver Poems,” to which Marlatt has made changes, with a significant substitution of “the city” with “the sh’te” in “Changes air now wet as the sea, the sh’te” in the opening poem. The word “sh’te,” borrowed from Japanese Noh theatre, refers to an “inhabiting presence, its ghostly energy for self-transformation,” as stated in the preface. The city’s past, and the potentiality inherent in this absence evolve to encompass the organic progress of empathy in the second part, “Some Open Doors,” in which Marlatt gives voice to historical sources by an active imagination of particulars. The last poem in this section, “reading it,” ends with a self-reflexive turn that paves the way for the third section, “Liquidities” by reminding the reader of the act of interpretation: “she waits as the cards collapse / the roads rearrange / another reading.”

In “Liquidities,” Marlatt focuses on interpretations of interpretations. She borrows from art and myth, such as from the 2011 Digital Nativespublic art exhibition curated by Clint Burnham and Lorna Brown, Thad Roan’s photograph of The Marine Building, and a Squamish story. Marlatt’s lines are as fluid and lyrical as in her early work, but their embedded perspectives offer further identification by introducing monosyllables as in “marine ah / body of water you came wet you / [. . .] elle ll a live oh.” These jarring sighs not only draw attention to the inadequacy of language when expressing the recollection of a memory, or disappointment, but they also emphasize habitual reactions, points of relief, comfort—and dissolution.

Dennis Lee’s Testament revels in self-reflexivity at the level of the syllable. Testament is a revision of his previous books Un and yesno.Like Marlatt, his poetry is concerned with the (lack of) attention paid to the civil landscape, and environment, but self-reflexivity is derived from the language itself, as opposed to external sources. This is evident in a passage in “scarlight”: “Of paleopresence. The extra / space around what is”; and in “lascaux”: “Is — now / there was a word. Was / funnelforce eddy of / strut and incumbence; pelt. . . .” On the surface, Lee’s associative thinking defies logic, but the focus on language allows the reader to breathe amidst the vibrant momentum of his words. Though they slip just as meaning becomes cognizant, this ephemerality highlights the potency of loss, and deterioration; the reader’s implication in the search for meaning allows issues—such as the pending extinction of the human species—to be contemplated, and felt.

The lines in Lee’s Testament are drum-tight, armed with torque; variations of meaning surface in the mind with every reading, and chills in the body are felt often. Even though Lee’s themes of extinction and apocalypse are sometimes redundant, the sheer rhythm of his words and precise attention to language allow the reader to pardon all else.

The April Poems by Leon Rooke focus on appearances and acts of perceiving in order to convey experience. If Marlatt and Lee have used self-reflexivity to challenge boundaries of subjective and objective identities, then Rooke uses self-reflexivity to portray these boundaries as they are seen from the perspectives of two lovers separated by death.

In The April Poems, the perspective is second-hand; the reader sees through someone else, or the reader sees themselves being aware of being seen through someone else. Even in a supposedly subjective entry from April’s journal titled “Back to the Future: Is It All Folly?” Rooke’s April tries to appeal to the reader using a direct address: “dear you / I’ve fallen into arrears / with all this / ’love’ / business,” but the language remains idiomatic and clichéd, despite the self-awareness of the characters. Acts of love occur in a voyeuristic setting, and the need for validation is always present. The self-reflexivity in these poems is circular, solipsistic, and brings to mind the lovers that inhabit films by Philippe Garrel—young, lost, constantly demanding to be seen, frustrating but handsome.

Only in the rushed optimism of the final poems does the cycle break. In the last poems, April finds a voice for herself, and in the final poem, her husband, Sam, writes to her friend, Tate: “Dear Tate: It is a lie that beautiful words have disappeared. I / have myself a trunkful in the attic. . . .” In these particulars, April decomes what is more than a two-dimensional character, but by this time, she is dead, and her husband speaks for her. As such, the deceptive self-reflexivity of these poems ultimately blurs identities between lovers, and speaks of the transference that sometimes occurs when in love, and when grieving.

This review “Agency & Self-reflexivity” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 165-66.

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