Authentic Exploration of Animal/Exploitation

Reviewed by Sarah-Jean Krahn

Both Jack Davis and Mercedes Eng will magnetize readers who seek an authentic read. Davis’ brief biography, consigned to the final page of his new book of animal poetry, Faunics, will gratify a reader hungry for a true intimacy in poetry. For what literary patron could not be romanced by the knowledge that Davis, of Parry Sound, Ontario, summers in a fire tower at the peak of the Alberta wild, moonlighting as the lookout for any telltale signs of smoke. How about by the fact that he inhabited for over a decade the woods ringing Lake Talon in northeastern Ontario with presumably little to do but observe and record the landscape and its other diverse inhabitants. And that’s not to mention this poet’s clear devotion to the animal world through his volunteer work with an India-based animal charity helping to heal and return injured or ill donkeys, cows, and dogs to their natural habitat of the street—the piece that will surely make animal lovers swoon. And, of course, Davis endeavours in Faunics to embody the real by suppressing his presence in the Canadian wilderness and instead focuses on other characters.

The authenticity of Eng’s Prison Industrial Complex Explodes is of a slightly more sensitive nature. The writing process for her, largely composed of realia of sorts, was almost certainly a poignant one, borrowing in part as she does from documentation of the ricocheting of her father from prison to prison across BC and Alberta when she was young. In sharing a series of letters from various officials and assistant commissioners, evading responsibility for the theft of what they refer to condescendingly as his “gold or gold-coloured neckchain,” alongside the various rectangular cards of lamination that claim to exhaust human identity and trace her father from immigration to imprisonment, Eng forces the reader to jimmy the gate that releases him from her memory, only to systematically slam him back in as the trail goes cold. For while the evidence regarding Sue Dong ENG is limited, there is a wealth of information from Crown and corporate sources that implicates these entities as complicit in incarcerating whole populations for profit in the manner of refugee detainment, the virtual slavery of prisoners, and the environmental destruction and resulting infirmity of First Peoples on their own lands.

Meanwhile, Davis’ work marks the contemplations of a walk in the woods of those same lands, the blink of an eye and the swoop of a bird of prey across the page so the hiker, focused on her destination, may barely distinguish the subtle gust of his “animal / air” from her “own / fluttering / clothes.” These largely short poems reflect the temporaneity of nature that flits by the humans who have populated themselves away from it, who inhibit instead of inhabit. The strongest, however, spring from the stories of he who strolled by them, as in “Variations on the Decomposing Fox,” which tenderly depicts the “effigy of her / dog-shaped name / in amnesial proteins” through conscious eyes of compassion. In these cases, Davis doesn’t extract himself fully and thus more effortlessly mesmerizes the reader with non-human/human synergy than when the animals abide alone.

While Faunics occasionally stirs its reader to estimate the desecration bred by humans upon the environment—“we fail & flee” while “the worst that can happen” remains eclipsed from other beings’ acumens—Prison Industrial Complex Explodes unexpectedly chronicles the environmental racism endemic to a Canada that caters to the corporate powerhouse by corrupting the ecological landscape. One of the most catastrophic consequences of this ransack is the indiscriminate destruction of the Mother of all peoples of Turtle Island: “we live here / this is our food back here.” These words spoken so simply by Freda Huson, Unist’ot’en clan spokesperson, as the Nation safeguards its source of sustenance, explain why “[o]ur Canadian oil and gas, utility, mining, and water companies are not immune to [the] challenges” of “multiculturalism”—in other words, the inevitable backlash and steady struggle by marginalized voices for an environmental justice monitored and reprimanded by law enforcement. This leaves the final question: do the sections of Eng’s book, which in their ever-increasing brevity echo a ticking time bomb, reflect the careening of a precarious society toward privatization of land and countless imprisoned bodies, or do they reflect the conquering of the carelessness of capitalist greed by the courage of commoners? Again, the title: Prison Industrial Complex Explodes. I’ll go with the latter.

This review “Authentic Exploration of Animal/Exploitation” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 139-140.

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