To begin, I have to admit that these are two quite different collections that come from two radically different speaking voices. It almost doesn’t seem fair to read them against each other because they’re working at such cross-purposes. However, given that both collections are published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in the Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series, there is sufficient reason to read them beside each other, and to consider how their similarities and differences reflect the current moment in Canadian poetry.
From Evan J, a Manitoba transplant currently living in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, comes Ripping Down Half the Trees (2021). It’s an introspective and socially conscious book that persuasively demonstrates how one trait indeed requires the other. The gaze throughout the collection keeps moving back and forth—like the rapt faces of tennis-match spectators—from a careful evaluation of the speaking voice to a strongly positioned argument for social services, environmental care, and decolonial thinking. In the blurb on the back, Greg Santos argues that the book shows that the author “confronts and questions his privilege,” and this confrontation and questioning are very clear in the pages themselves.
Evan J’s reflection is achieved through some cute confessional moments and in other more effective moments of poignant metaphor. One of my favourites appears at the end of “Of Course You Do Find Spicy Bits,” when Evan J concludes, “I’ve learned / if you can break a carrot // or fraternity, you too can break / the pointer” (18). And indeed throughout the book, there is a clear conceit of cutting down, cutting back, and paring down larger concepts (filiation, nation, settler colonialism, selfhood, environment, care) to the core principles that should guide us (care, care, care, and once more for those in the back, care). The whole book is a call to declutter, to see the trees rather than getting bogged down by the vastness of forestness. Consider the collection’s title, and titles of poems like “All It Takes Is an Artist and a Knife.” This book is an effort to cut to the bones of our world.
In a lot of ways, that situates it squarely in the contemporary tradition of political-lyrical poetry. That does make it less surprising or exciting than I might prefer. But it’s important to remember that this collection is less a call to witness than a self-reflexive meditation on what it means to be called to witness, to write a book that is an “exhale, for all my friends, / into a pencil,” as Evan J writes at the end of “Pottery, an Impossibility” (87). And because the speaker does indeed have “all [their] friends” in mind, the collection is a bit uneven. In its expression of the discomfort of speaking for and about trauma and suffering, it chafes a bit against itself, and formally there’s not too much unique or interesting going on. (“Colonialism for Dummies” is one standout.) But the honesty in these pages is worth the read, even if more attention could have been paid to form.
Sarah Tolmie’s Check (2020), on the other hand, is a collection playing close and somewhat unique attention to form, but lacking almost entirely the introspection and thoughtfulness of Ripping Down Half the Trees. This reviewer is a contingent faculty member in an English department, so I’m primed exactly to understand most of Tolmie’s references. For example, as a precarious professor who doesn’t drive (I spent nearly four hours on public transit getting to and from a class yesterday), I nearly howled at this pithy poem (unnamed as all of the poems in Check are): “Professors worry about intersections / because they all drive” (18). A jab at the avant-garde’s “old dada attitude” (46) gave me a good chuckle too. But as a whole, Check feels very insular and didn’t open up to me at all while I read through it. Indeed, I wonder if anyone outside our little circle of English department faculty would really have any interest in this collection.
I’m a city dweller with a suburban family who’s never lived more than forty minutes from the bustling downtown, and an upper-middle-class woman who’s never been in the kind of social services Evan J describes, but I still felt invited and introduced to this world thoughtfully by Evan J’s writing. A mini-glossary at the back of the collection helped a little, but the invitational tone did more. Evan J’s goal is certainly to invite the reader to witness, to pay attention to, some important larger issues. Tolmie’s collection, on the other hand, can’t seem to decide if it rejoices in its insular target audience or if the speaker bemoans the small size of their audience. At one point, for example, Tolmie quips, “I have to admit I’m a coterie poet. / Three dozen readers certainly know it” (27). But on the very next page, a poem pokes fun at InstaPoets for putting their “words in a big marketplace” while asserting that the poet doesn’t “need [their] poetry giving good face” (28). The sentiments are incongruous at worst, and unclear at best. As a reader, I wasn’t sure what to think.
If Evan J’s collection feels perhaps a bit too on the pulse at times, Tolmie’s feels a bit outdated. Tolmie herself invites—or better, claims—a comparison to satirical poetry behemoth Dorothy Parker (57). The comparison is clear. But that just makes the collection feel a bit older and more insular, and the poems are often without Parker’s characteristic charm. Whereas Parker is acerbic but frank, this collection reads like a speaker who knows everything—that uncle at Thanksgiving who butts in to each conversation to tell you what’s wrong with everyone else these days. The collection lacks introspection already, but that missing piece is even more glaring when it’s read against Evan J’s collection, the very purpose of which is to turn that gaze inwards.