Collaborators Unbound

  • Jennifer Still
    Comma. BookThug (purchase at
  • David White
    The Lark Ascending. Pedlar Press (purchase at
  • Renee Norman and Carl Leggo
    Hearing Echoes. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at
Reviewed by Michael Roberson

While co-authored books of poetry may not seem unusual, considering the long shadow cast by Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, conversation poems are apparently rare. Inevitably, then, that rarity makes Hearing Echoes, by Renee Norman and Carl Leggo, rather refreshing. The book alternates between authors, presenting a “complementary” collection that, despite offering distinct voices, delves into thinking “human life into poetry.” Norman dedicates the book to her daughters and her mother, and Leggo dedicates it to his granddaughters; both authors embrace a definition of poetry as “patterns of documentation / recording lives so nothing is lost.” Across five sections, the authors meditate on growing older in different roles: as parent, grandparent, partner, daughter, friend, educator, and pet owner. Each section begins with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf. While epigraphs provide inspirational “words for weaving,” Woolf’s presence remains relatively cursory and academic: “a question on Jeopardy / an answer in Trivial Pursuit.”

At their best, the poems in Hearing Echoes—wholehearted demonstrations of the lyric as the “measure of the heart”—exhibit both honesty and wit. In tone and theme, the poems have a conversational familiarity; they echo recognizable experiences and feelings. Norman’s “All Texted Out,” for example, captures the poetry in text messages: “howdoyoumakespacesagain?” one line cutely reads. And in “Faster Than a Bullet,” Leggo quotes his granddaughter: “Please, take the crust off my bread. Nana always does that sometimes.” Part of the approachability of these poems, the comfort they can provide, comes also from the vulnerability they exude while dealing with grave themes like miscarriage, dementia, separation, and insecurity. That said, the poems often seem casual, rather than careful, like “poem[s] written / quickly in the gaps.” But the occasional mixing of metaphors and awkward mechanics hardly diminish the sincerity of the voices in dialogue.

Given the apparent rarity of contemporary conversation poetry, I want to mention that David White was a contributor to Renga: A Collaborative Poem (1994), an exercise in the traditional Japanese collaborative form. Since the renga begins with haiku, I am not surprised to see White hone lyrical intensity in his newest work, The Lark Ascending. Written between 1997 and 2016, it infuses lyric meditation into narrative memoir and travelogue. A sequence of poems, it also serves as an essay about the culture that produced his adopted Chinese daughter, Shen—to whom he dedicates the book. White brackets his book with the figure of Lynda, a dear friend, who in the first poem, “Matrilineal,” represents one of Shen’s spiritual mothers, and who by the final poem, “Lynda,” has tragically passed away. The book invokes both George Meredith’s poem “The Lark Ascending” and the classical composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams (inspired by Meredith). White uses the lyric voice to celebrate and articulate the spirit of life, past and present: both she “soaring from my (sad) release” and she “soaring up / into the song of your life.”

Across the book’s three sections, White demonstrates the kind of “elaborate, intricate” attention to detail he describes in “Paper Cutting”:

dedicated months expand

a picture, subtract

from the template

as days are subtracted

from a life.

He combines meticulousness with tenderness and humour. In “Chicken Pox,” for example, he describes how his daughter has accidentally stepped on some alyssum flowers and must confront the “inescapable mortality of flowers” as the “[f]irst shock of knowing / transgression may arise / by the purest of accidents.” Spanning nearly twenty years of writing, the book captures the expansions and subtractions that mark the life and wisdom of “a Queer Odysseus” with plenty to report about being alive in the twenty-first century as an adoptive father, a gay man, a devoted friend, and a human being.

In Comma, her third book of poetry, Jennifer Still uses methods of erasure and cut-up, constructing poems as remedial spells for her brother, who spent months in a coma. Listening to his breath and reading his “handwritten field guide to prairie grasses,” she collaborates with his interests and condition. She begins the unpaginated book with a single poem, “Chrysalis,” as an invocation to the ultimate symbol of regeneration. In that poem and across the book, “breath” figures prominently because “[s]omewhere / just below the breath, silence / reorders.” Brilliantly, Still takes her brother’s condition, his silence, and reimagines it as the condition of poetry itself. But when she writes that “[t]he poem, like a field, when leveled, can regenerate,” she also refashions poetry as a device for healing. While the book contains seven sections in total, the middle section, “Papery Acts,” provides her statement of poetics, in which she describes “[t]he scrap poem as suture. A mend.” Still uses the book’s pages to showcase her “pilfer[ed]” and “forag[ed]” poems—poems that originate in books, but also, as her notes describe, in such discoveries as a hornet’s nest, flowers, a pencil box, seeds, tape, and even curtains. She also includes reproduced visual poems demonstrating her cut-ups, erosions, and erasures. Most of the poems “climb at the outer edge / of order,” asking us to think beyond syntactic logic in favour of something far more rhizomatic. Still maintains an intense engagement with etymologies and word residues: shifting, omitting, or reordering letters pushes us beyond usual dimensions of sense on the path to discovery. She lightens the first “m” in the book’s title, Comma, to enable the punctuation mark and her brother’s condition to inhabit the same word. She takes hope in the possibility that a coma is not necessarily a full stop, that poetry has the capacity to heal.

This review “Collaborators Unbound” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 172-173.

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