Beyond the Body

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

Poetry collections from Liz Howard and Kyla Jamieson exemplify aesthetics and style, each author thoroughly inhabiting their own distinct voices. These poets are demanding in their voices, precise in their language, approaching a wide variety of subjects and forms within their collections.  From the natural landscapes of lakes and marshes populated with herons, to parks populated with “ultimate bros”, each of these collections reveals poets taking chances with their dynamic and propulsive work.


I had the pleasure of seeing Kyla Jamieson on a panel at the Fraser Valley Literary Festival this fall, where she read from a new poem and talked about the craft of poetry. Her comments around writing disability echoed what I had read in Jamieson’s first full-length book of poetry, Body Count. In her collection, she uses unsentimental and often humorous language to explore difficult subjects including disability, desire, misogyny, and navigating the ever-changing contemporary Canadian literary landscape. The poems detail crushes and crushing disappointments, pleasure and the pain of endings, the before and after of brain injury, the voice close and confessional, as if the speaker is whispering in the reader’s ear. The result is intoxicating, engaging as the poems unravel themselves across the pages. Jamieson’s poems about her concussion and subsequent brain injury are some of the strongest and most affecting of the collection; in form, they shift from the earlier “pre-concussion” poems in that they take on a more amorphous, shifting shape to reveal the changes to the speaker’s perspective and reality:


not lying
in bed with a two-

week headache

bored & lonely

while everything

happens in sound

waves around me (52)


Jamieson’s poems are also concerned with the contemporary world they are situated in—some explore pop culture and the strangeness there with dark humour and a wry voice, commenting on everything from beauty standards to sexual assault to casual misogyny. Often, her lines are short and sharp as a spike, eliciting that proverbial punch to the gut. This sparseness of language is one of the most successful and specific aspects to her voice as a poet—every word is weighed, measured for its impact and purpose, as if a bomb before throwing it.


Despite the dark overtones to some subject matter, Jamieson’s poems remain airy, due in large part to the physical structure, the lean columns that propel the reader forward.  There are not necessarily easy solutions included within the poems, but Jamieson is able to really immerse us in the worlds of her poems, unafraid to ask the difficult questions.


Liz Howard’s debut collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2016; the jury described it as a collection that “keeps us delightfully off balance with a mix of lyricism and experiment, allusion and invention.” The poems in the collection are cerebral, precise in language and form, and often deal with the landscape of the North. The poems travel that terrain with lovely images of blood moons, wild blueberries, and abandoned hunting shacks, drawing heavily in both image and allusion from the natural world.


History plays a large role in this collection as well, with Howard exploring her mother learning to field dress a moose, a childhood in the bush, and her youth working in lumber mills. In “Debarker,” Howard writes,


debarker: where they

keep the machine that

cuts bark away from

the trees years ago

blood cousin fell in

and emerged skinless (13)


The integration of history, memory, and violence speaks to the colonial past and post-colonial present, woven throughout the collection, a steady beat of loss. A certain meditative quality runs through these poems—they are recursive, each one informing the next in an essential way. The poems are lyrical in their construction, the language careful and fresh to reveal the narrative. However, Howard’s success as a stylist is perhaps seen most through her use of language—she is not afraid to upend expectations, marrying the lyrical with the scientific, creating a vibrant contrast of the body, the physical, and the intellectual within her work.


Howard’s second poetry collection, Letters in a Bruised Cosmos feels more intimate, holding tragedy and family history up against philosophical and astrophysical science (it should surprise no one that Howard holds an Honours Bachelor of Science with Distinction as well as an MFA). Of mixed settler and Anishinaabe heritage, she draws on aspects of Indigenous culture and concepts as a framework throughout the collection. These poems remain lyrical narratives, weaving together the past and the present, the myth and the physical, often centering around Howard attempting to reconcile her father’s abandonment. She finds him shortly before his death, and in “Father’s Day” she writes:


The human form is difficult to destroy

utterly. When fragments of your father’s

bones thud against the ground of his wishing

forgive yourself for the shock (24)


Much of this collection focuses on grief, and identity, and Howard’s place in the world, in that vast cosmos. There is an immediacy to these poems, as if she is bearing witness to all these disparate happenings of the universe documenting and interrogating them at once. These poems are layered, coupled with startling language and sharply drawn images, while still retaining the meditative quality seen in her first collection. There are reverberations within the poems, the past intimately tied to the present, circling around always to the central question: “Who do we become after the worst has happened?”

This review “Beyond the Body” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 14 Jul. 2022. Web.

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