Balancing on the Tip of Hope

Reviewed by Emily Wall

These four eco-poets are writing about the natural world, and coming at it from places of wonder, shame, grief, and holiness. Taken together, these poems place the reader on the fulcrum—we tip toward ecological disaster, colonization, disease . . . and then we tip toward pure wonder and gratitude. Norah Bowman loves uneasily, in full awareness that as a settler-colonizer her ancestors are responsible for this changed and harmed landscape. Stephen Collis’ book is a meditation and mind-wander exploration of climate change and the ways we grieve the destruction of our home.Joanne Epp juxtaposes stark and destructive progress against a world where it’s still possible to find natural treasures everywhere we look—for now. And Matt Rader’s poems, haiku-like jewels, give us the breath we need to stand on that tipping point, loving the earth, loving our bodies, and witnessing all the ways we are failing both.


Norah Bowman’s book Breath, Like Water, opens with a bang: “Women who leave the doors unlocked, dishes dirty, men unsoothed” (8). After this first breath of fresh air, the poems continue to surprise and challenge the reader. These poems are a complex braid of personal history, deep awareness of misogyny and colonialism, and passion for the natural world. Bowman explores how we damaged souls got to where we live now and how we live in this place. Each poem feels like it’s balancing on a fulcrum with the I at the centre. The speaker is living deeply and beautifully in a place she should never have been.  She fully embraces an awareness that she’s a settler-colonizer living on Indigenous land.  And she calls out those who actively made the decisions that brought her to this place: a great grandfather who punished his pregnant daughter with banishment to Canada, a priest who colonized and destroyed, developers who continue to build crushing roads and neighbourhoods through wilderness. This poet has no fear. She calls it exactly as she sees it, fully embracing her own culpability in the situation. She balances that shame and grief with a deep love of the mountain she lives under. One of her strongest image motifs is her praise of moss and lichen. We see this throughout the poems, and it echoes the larger theme of the book:  look down. What are you crushing with your hiking boots? And how fragile, precious, and resilient are these beings? Her eco-feminist, decolonized language and vision are powerful, and reverent: “Look, I come from a line of angry women. // I am not in love with mountains, or river, or poetry. // I am in love with Mountain” (9). This book will challenge you and stay with you. This is a book everyone in North America should be reading.


In A History of the Theories of Rain, Stephen Collis writes songs of lament for the planet. The book isn’t easy to read, but it’s also written with care and intention. Collis uses a fragmented, prosy style to mirror interior mind wanderings. This symbolic syntax puts the reader on edge—literally, symbolically—and reinforces the point he’s trying to make. Collis intentionally shows us the anxiety of a mind fearful for the planet’s future: “I think this is logic. Even if p is a restabilized climate and q is runaway warming. A time series in which there are alternate possible immediate futures but only one ultimate future is what I fear. Or long for / I don’t know. This is logic. I am an animal fretting. I think / gore is what we wend toward” (7). There are moments where we break through the fabric of this meditative structure and Collis hands us a striking metaphor: “I found [possible pasts] by the dumpster out back beside a thrown-away planet a bit flat or even concave like a crushed and stained mattress” (6). Collis has metaphors throughout the book that hook a reader—that land right in soft flesh and stay. His ability to take anxiety and connect it with image is impressive. These do, however, make us hungry for more. While we admire the syntactical play and experimentation, readers also may wish for a more present speaker and more vivid images to remind us what we’re fighting for. Rain itself becomes a construct in the book—not actual rain. It’s an interesting approach to a long, poetic argument, but also one that may not convince—or even hold—all readers. In the end, however, his anxiety, anger, and fear about our planet shine honestly out of every poem: “from stillness when / you put the book down / and light that cocktail / cock arm / about to throw” (15).


Joanne Epp loves berries. Throughout her book Cattail Skyline, we come upon these small, jewelled poems as we do in the woods—suddenly a bright spot, a moment of deep taste: “These will burst their sacs / of juice when they pass from lips to tongue, / release sharp sweetness in the mouth” (“Raspberries”). The poems trace the writer’s wandering through small patches of wild (wilder in childhood than now) as she seeks out small bodies of water, wild grasses, “a lynx’s tufted ears” (“Halfway Up”)—images that take us into the heart of our natural world. These poems are a lament in the face of development: “A nondescript retail block extends / its parking lot, held up by concrete pilings / over the creek” (“Constraint”). But they are also a continued treasure hunt for the places (and berries!) that remain. She notes the losses as we meander across landscapes, across a continent, and even across an ocean with her, but these poems stubbornly focus on hope: “Behind me, a plastic lid flotilla, chip bags, a Slurpee cup . . . I keep my eyes on the birds” (“Lanigan Creek Revisited”).


The first poem in Matt Rader’s collection Ghosthawk catches you by delighted surprise:


two gopher snakes


in a shallow pit

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

and us


witness. (8)


This opening poem sets the story and shape of the book: we stop dead and see something strange and beautiful, with us merely as witnesses. In these poems, Rader reaches toward the larger and mysterious, but never sinks into pure meditation or philosophy, instead staying centred in the observation itself:


Once, a rattlesnake

the color of Yakima

earth lifted the ancient,

holy light of her rattle

toward me. (21-22)


His small, bright poems also juxtapose the light and the dark:


The dark

steel girder bridging

the river,


its spray-painted

swastika and names. (23)


Nearly all of the poems are written in three-line stanzas with vertical white space between each line and stanza, creating haiku-like moments over and over. This intense use of white space encourages the reader to breathe through and with his meditations on the natural world. Although Rader appears as a voice and persona, the poems are almost never focused on the I. He places himself in witness, but never in the centre: “I was nothing, once. / I was so happy” (100).


These four poets bring their unique visions and witness to the question of how we live in a world we are both loving and destroying. The poems are painfully beautiful, and yet also offer moments of pure hope to the reader, who sits alongside them, balanced, in this moment of ecological history.

This review “Balancing on the Tip of Hope” originally appeared in Poetics and Extraction Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 251 (2022): 190-193.

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