All in All

Reviewed by Dani Spinosa

There is a strange pleasure that comes with reading two very unlike books at the same time. And indeed, these two 2018 offerings are very different. Kate Braid’s collection is filled with immersive and evocative imagery. Caroline Szpak’s boasts strikingly disorienting and defamiliarizing linguistic play. The two collections seem opposing sides of the same coin: Braid’s world is all too natural, Szpak’s is strange and unnatural.

It is unsurprising that Braid, an established poet with six books of poetry preceding Elemental, is also a writer of creative nonfiction. Elemental is the work of a poet who has her bearings. It is interested in drawing the reader into the poems’ worlds and examining the natural world closely, using earth, air, wood, fire, and water to separate the collection into sections. In these poems, Braid cites her sources and notes her diverse influences, ranging from Emily Carr to Lorna Crozier, from Joseph Campbell to nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock prints.

In Elemental, Braid’s poems move beautifully through the elements—not observing the natural world, but with the speaker as a clear and distinct (and often feminized) part of it. As the book’s first poem instructs, this collection is interested most in being “sewn to the earth by such a rain / [being] part of the fabric.” The collection is interested throughout in reinvesting human experience in the natural world. Here is a world where statues move with water, where we swim freely, climb quickly, and don’t mind the thorns of berry bushes tearing our favourite jeans. In these poems, reader and speaker alike are invited into the elemental fabric.

If Elemental is all-natural and invites the reader in, Szpak’s debut collection is insanely unnatural and keeps its reader at an interested but puzzled distance. The collection relies on unique and clever aurality that begs the reader to seek out one of Szpak’s many readings to hear the work aloud. Though Slinky Naive is insightful and often quite humorous, for the most part the poems’ meanings take a back seat to sound and strangeness. It is thus fitting that poet Stuart Ross highlights the collection’s uniqueness in his blurb on the book’s back cover; these poems recall Ross’ trademark sound-play and humour throughout, and show us that Szpak is writing uniquely, but within a strong Canadian tradition.

The poems in Slinky Naive often hide or obscure something integral to their meanings so the reader is left to meditate on the words and sounds themselves. This is especially the case in the delightful “What Happened in Venice” where we learn nothing about what happened in Venice, but are instead left to think about “How distance is / Venice how it’s thicker than an eraser” and “How it’s hot / enough that all words sweat through their second meaning.” It is quite clear why Szpak’s collection has caused such a stir in the poetry community, and has garnered such a following.

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